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Full text of "The life of Ernest Renan"

THE LIBRARY OF THE 
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THE LIBRARY OF THE 
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ENDOWED BY THE 
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1897 



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Form No 513, 
Rev. 1/84 









THE LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



Digitized by the Internet Archive 
in 2013 



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. OS 

THE LIFE OF \ SV7 

ERNEST RENAN 



MADAME JAMES DARMESTETER 

(A. Mary F. Robinson) 



BOSTON AND NEW YORK 
HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN AND COMPANY 
1897 



To 

MADAME JEAN PSICHARI 
(No^mi Renan) 

I DEDICATE THIS PORTRAIT 
OF HER FATHER, 
WHICH OWES TO HER DEVOTED HAND 
ITS MOST LIFE-LIKE 
TOUCHES 



682677 



CONTENTS 



PART I 

CHAP. PAGE 

h Tr£guier ..... 3 
II. Henriette . . . . .13 

III. The Seminary . . . . . 22 

IV. A Doubtful Vocation 34 
V. A Great Resolution . . 48 

VI. Dominus Pars ..... 57 

PART II 

I. New Ideas . . , . .71 

IL 1848 . . . . . . 81 

III. The Vale of Grace .... 97 

IV. The Moral Philosopher . . . 111 
V. Marriage . . . . .120 

VI. A Mission to Phoenicia . . .129 



PART III 

I. The College of France . . .149 
II. The Life of Christ . . . .159 
III. The Origins of Christianity . . 169 

vii 



viii 



CONTENTS 



CHAP. PAGE 

IV. Politics ...... 177 

V. The War— Renan as Prophet . . 187 

VI. The £lite .... . 196 

PART IV 

L The Antichrist .... 207 
II. The Origins of Christianity : the Philo- 
sophers . . . . .215 

III. Souvenirs ..... 223 

IV. ECCLESIASTES IN A DEMOCRACY . . 230 

V. The History of Israel . . .255 
VI. Last Days ..... 266 



PART I 



CHAPTER I 



TRfiGUIER 

ERNEST RENAN was born at Treguier, in 
the Cotes du Nord, on the 28th of February 
1823. For the third time in sixty years Brittany 
gave birth to a man-child who should transform 
and renew the religious temper of his times. 

Chateaubriand and Lamennais were scarcely 
past their prime when the young Renan first 
went to school in Treguier. In him, as in 
them, the racial strain is strong. Under the ex- 
uberance of Chateaubriand, the revolt of Lamen- 
nais, the sentiment and irony of Renan, we meet 
the same irregular genius, mobile and sensitive 
beyond the like of woman, yet, in the last 
resort, stubborn as Breton granite under its 
careless grace of flowers. 

All these were great writers, but in their style, 
as in their intellectual quality, they have small 
share in that Latin order which is the birthright 
of a Bossuet, a Racine, or even a Voltaire. 
Their genius is a sort of hippogriff, as Renan 
used to say of himself, belonging to no known 

3 



4 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



race of mortal herds. Their style is a mid- 
summer medley saved from incongruity by an 
infallible grace. Romance and Antiquity meet 
there, and the old world and the ultra-modern 
— the harp of Tristan and the echo of Paris. 
Celtic magicians, they see the world through 
a haze of their own, at once dim and dazzling, 
full of uncertain glimpses and brilliant mists, 
like the variable weather of their moors. 

There are men of genius whose birthplace is 
of no moment. Who remembers that Shelley 
was born in Sussex ? But Renan is as Breton as 
Merlin himself. Those who know nothing of Celtic 
places must find it hard to understand him. When 
I write : " Renan was born at Treguier," I would 
desire that my readers should call up, not neces- 
sarily Treguier, but the grey steepness of any large 
hill-town in Brittany, Scotland, Northumberland, 
Wales, Ireland, or Cornwall. Let them remember 
not only the gaunt and solitary aspect of the 
place, but the kind of persons who dwell in these 
small grey cities, at once so damp and so scantily 
foliaged, under the incessant droppings of the 
uncertain heaven. There is a great indifference 
to worldly things. And the dreamer — we may 
count him as ten per cent, of the population — be 



TREGUIER 



5 



he poet, saint, beggar, or merely drunkard — is 
capable of a pure detachment from material in- 
terests which no Buddhist sage could surpass. 
There is a vibrating " other worldliness " in the 
air ; the gift of prayer is constant ; religious 
eloquence the brightest privilege, and religious 
fervour a commonplace. Yet, all round, in the 
high places and the country holy-wells, Mab and 
Merlin, the fairies and the witches, keep their 
devotees. And over all the grey, veiled, mel- 
ancholy distinction, which first strikes us as the 
note of such a place, there is the special poetic, 
Celtic quality, the almost immaterial beauty which 
has so lingering a charm. Many landscapes surely 
are lovelier than these weatherbeaten moors of 
wet heath and harsh gorse, of wild broom 
and juniper. Look at them, overhung by the 
wreathing hill-mists, traversed and seamed across 
by the deep-sunken river valleys which hide such 
unsuspected wealth of hanging woods. There is 
scarce a tree on the upper level — a stunted pine, 
perhaps here and there, or half-a-dozen lady- 
birches, mixed with thorn, clustered round some 
menhir by the yellow upland tarn. The keen sea 
wind has torn and twisted the scanty trees and 
blown their branches all one way. The purple 
heather barely hides the rock which pierces the 
sterile soil, as a bony arm frays a worn-out gar- 



6 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



ment. The ocean, the melancholy ocean of a 
Celtic shore, bounds the horizon with its illimitable 
grey. The Breton coast near Tr^guier is the 
softest, the prettiest, of these typical Celtic land- 
scapes. But even there the country wears a 
barren grace. Yet what Norman pasture or 
Burgundy vineyard can boast the strong attrac- 
tion of the moors ? 

The same quality — neither rich nor sound 
but infinitely sweet — clings about the people. 
The men in the fields gaze at you with stern dark 
faces in an almost animal placidity. In Renan's 
youth, they were still almost as wild as their 
country, strange rude men, with flowing hair, 
wrapped up in goatskins in wintertime. The 
girls are charming — it is difficult to say why — 
their slender and yet rough-hewn figures have 
no more grace of curve than a thirteenth century 
church saint in her niche. Their pale faces, with 
down-dropped lids and delicate pointed chins, 
have very little bloom. In their black dresses 
and white coifs they have the austere distinction, 
the demure reserve, of very young novices who 
renounce they know not what. 

This Breton race, apparently so severe, is one 
of the most pleasure-loving, and one of the most 
garrulous in France : a very storehouse of myth 
and legend, of song and story, of jest and gibe. 



TREGUIER 



7 



These melancholy men and maids, visible emblems 
of renunciation, are capable of mirth and wit and 
passion. Fond of the glass, quick to repartee, 
they glory in the gift of the gab, but only when 
the door is shut on strangers. The extraordin- 
ary strength of idealism, the infinite delicacy of 
sentiment, which form the inmost quintessence of 
the Celt, impose on him an image of seemliness, 
a pure decorum, to which he incessantly con- 
forms the old Adam rebellious in his heart. 
Reserve and passion, prudence and poetry, are 
equally inherent in him. The very sinner who 
trangressed most flagrantly at last week's wake 
or " Pardon," will show to-day in every act and 
every word a serene tranquillity, a justness of 
thought and phrase which is no more hypocritical 
than was the passionate fantasy of his falling- 
away. 

Treguier is an ancient cathedral city set high 
upon a hill at the confluence of two lovely rivers. 
A solitary place whose quiet streets are bordered 
with blank convent walls over which the garden 
tree-tops wave at intervals. The steep and silent 
city is crowned by a Gothic cathedral, an admir- 
able structure whose simple lines soar upwards 
from a broad and massive base, ever slenderer, 
ever narrowing, till they terminate in a spire of 
extraordinary delicacy and loftiness, a land-mark 



8 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



for many miles around. Beautiful cloisters, as 
old as the church itself, surround the grassy 
churchyard. But the glory of the cathedral is 
the large tomb of St Ives which it contains. 
The patron saint of Brittany, who is at once the 
patron of Truth and the patron of Rhetoric, is 
buried there. 

Such is Treguier on the hill. Two steep streets 
connect this " haunt of ancient peace " with the 
seaport of Treguier, a busy place, yet opening 
quietly, not on the full sport and hurry of the 
ocean, but on a land-locked estuary folded be- 
tween tranquil promontories wooded to the water's 
edge. Treguier port traffics in fish and grain, and 
the trading population centres round the quay. 
But this stir of life is hushed as we mount the hill. 
Only a few retired sea-captains, a sprinkling of the 
local gentry, and the numerous clergy, find on that 
peaceful summit an undisturbed asylum. 

In the first quarter of the present century, a 
certain Renan, of the fisher-clan of the Renans 
of Goelo, having made some money by his 
fishing-smack, bought and inhabited a pleasant 
house on the hill, near the cathedral and the 
desecrated Episcopal Palace. The house we speak 
of is a tall, narrow, irregular building, no two 
windows of a line, whose gable-casements com- 
mand a pleasant view of hills and woods seen 



treguier 



9 



across an abrupt hill-side flight of steep-pitched 
roofs. 

" Captain " Renan (i.e., captain of his fishing- 
smack) was a feckless, musing man, an obstinate 
dreamer, convinced of his gift for practical affairs. 
Yet a man of character, of a silent tenderness of 
sentiment, with a strain of melancholy even in his 
happiest affections. The name he bore was well 
known in Treguier, for his father was one of the 
most ardent among the Republicans of the place. 
In those days, when Charles X. was on the throne, 
Republican opinions were out of fashion ; but 
Charles X. had no less devoted subject than the 
elder Renan. He too was a sailor : it is the 
Bretons who chiefly man the navy of France. On 
the very morrow of the Coronation this obstinate 
old skipper walked down Treguier High Street 
adorned by an immense tricoloured cockade. 

" I should like to know who will snatch these 
colours from me ! " cried he. 

" No one, Skipper ! No one ! " answered the 
townsfolk of Treguier, and taking him by the 
elbow, they led him home. For though party 
passion ran high in Treguier — aye, even scaffold- 
high ! — a general neighbourliness tempered preju- 
dice ; and men who had threatened each other's 
heads a short while back, showed a willingness to 
render each other any kindly service, while fully 



io LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



aware that on the morrow the old political quarrel 
might break out afresh. 

In one of these hours of truce, the son of this 
staunch old sailor, Captain Renan — a good 
Republican himself — had married the daughter 
of a respectable Lannion trader. She had 
been reared in the religion of the altar and 
the throne. Her mother's house had been, 
throughout the Terror, the devoted hiding-place 
of non-juring priests. But the brilliance and the 
success of post- revolutionary adventure had left 
Captain Renan's bride of a more modern way 
of thinking. She was a Philippist — an Orleanist, 
as we should say to-day : — a little lively gipsy of 
a woman, black as a prune from Agen, and with 
Gascon blood in her. She had ever a witty 
answer ready, and knew how to defend her 
opinions and bring the laugh on her side. Her 
sharp brilliance formed the strongest possible con- 
trast to the dreamy melancholy of her gentle 
husband. 

The Celt is not only religious and political, 
he is also innately superstitious. There were 
wonder-working saints and fairies, and wise-women 
in plenty, on all the moors round Tr£guier. When 
Ernest Renan was born, — a seven months' child, 
— his anxious mother feared he could not live. 
Old Gude, the witch, took the babe's little shirt 



TREGUIER 



and dipped it in a country holy-well. She came 
back radiant : " He will live after all ! " she cried, 
" the two little arms stretched out, and you should 
have seen the whole garment swell and float : he 
means to live ! " The fairies loved the child, de- 
clared old Gude, and had touched him with their 
wand before his birth. 

Wise old dame, she saw from the first the 
strength and the charm of Ernest Renan ; a sort 
of natural magic, a sort of immaterial grace. 
There was the fairies' kiss ! Renan almost cer- 
tainly exaggerated his debt to a Celtic ancestry. 
But this much at least he owed them : this, and 
that obstinate sweetness, that rare fidelity of his, 
which contrasted so strangely with the liveliest 
impressionability of the nerves. And some 
whilom bard, most surely, bequeathed him the 
peculiar music of his style, clear as the bell about 
the neck of Tristan's hound, which rang so sweet 
that whoso heard it forgot forthwith his cares and 
all his sorrow. 

Seven hundred years ago the Celtic poets in- 
vented a new way of loving. They discovered a 
sentiment more vague, more tender, than any the 
Latins or the Germans knew, penetrating to the 
very source of tears, and at once an infinite aspira- 
tion, a mystery, an enigma, a caress. They 
discovered "l'amour courtois." Yesterday their 



12 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



descendant, Ernest Renan, would fain have in- 
vented a new way of believing. . . . The " amour 
fine " of Launcelot has passed from our books 
into our hearts ; we feel with a finer shade to-day 
because those Celtic harpers lived and sang. I 
dare not say that Renan has done as much for 
Faith— that he has transported it far from the 
perishable world of creeds and dogmas into the 
undying domain of a pure feeling. But, at least, 
the attempt was worthy of a Celt and an idealist. 



CHAPTER II 

HENRIETTE 

T X 7E have spoken of fairies. The true fairy — 
* * the guardian angel, rather — of Ernest 
Renan's youth was his only sister, Henriette. 
Henriette had already one brother, Alain, an 
excellent lad of fourteen, sober, just, and silent. 
She was twelve years old when Ernest was born, 
a little woman already, troubled about many 
things, dimly aware of the struggle for life and 
able to understand her mother's tears, as she 
watched her rock the baby on her knees, weeping 
passionately over this second son, so long desired, 
and now born, as it seemed, into a world of sordid 
misfortune. Already the head of the family, in his 
dreamy but obstinate unworldliness, had half ruined 
the little household. Henriette, who inherited 
her father's silent and tenacious character, bore 
him a child's absolute devotion. She adored him 
and understood his moody reserve, as ruin 
gathered closer. She loved the vivacious mother 
whom she so little resembled, and who showed 

13 



14 LIFE OF ERNEST REN AN 



the plain child but scanty tenderness. Above all, 
she hugged to her inmost heart this new-born 
brother, as though she felt that for him, through 
him, and in him, she should attain to a completer 
existence than any she had dreamed of hereto- 
fore. 

Henriette was neither quick nor brilliant. She 
was not at all pretty, in the usual sense of fresh 
country prettiness. We might say of her, as it 
was said of the Maid of Siena, " speciositas 
naturaliter in ea non inerat excessive? Her 
delicate features were marred by a birthmark. 
But she had eyes of the sweetest, long, white 
beautiful hands, and even in childhood a bearing 
of modest distinction. A sort of innocent dignity 
was hers — a dove-like dignity made of mildness 
and quiet and reserve. Nothing of the poetic 
charm of her birth-place was lost upon the pensive 
child. The shadow of the convent walls, the 
stillness, broken at intervals by the clash of 
church bells, the distant moan of the sea, the 
half-understood Latin sentences which the good 
Sisters taught her in the psalter, all were things 
to be pondered in her heart, — subtle influences 
to mould her tender nature. Her education, if 
limited, was exquisite. As she grew out of 
childhood, the noble families of Treguier, banished 
by the Revolution, crept back, one by one, 



HENRIETTE 



15 



fatigued and penniless, to wither in their ruined 
homesteads. Many single ladies of the most 
authentic nobility, were glad to earn their bread 
by giving lessons — a praiseworthy habit they had 
contracted during the Emigration. One of these 
impoverished damsels completed the training of 
Henriette Renan, and added to her natural 
sweetness that touch of good breeding which 
enhances every grace. Henriette, sensitive to 
every refinement, quickly caught the trick of 
unspoken and apparently deferent authority. 
While she was still a mere child, she was in 
great request as a tamer of wild spirits, and the 
young madcaps of the place yielded to her 
tranquil charm. She was born to guide, to 
soothe, and to educate. And when she was 
twelve years old she began the education of 
Ernest Renan. 

"She attached herself to me with the whole 
strength of her tender and timid heart, athirst for 
love. I still remember my baby tyrannies ; she 
never chafed at them. Dressed to go out to 
some girlish party, she would come to kiss me 
good-bye, and I would cling to her frock, beseech 
her to turn back, not to leave me ! And she 
would turn round, take off her best gown and sit 
at home with me. One day, half in fun, half as a 
penalty for some childish offence, she threatened 



16 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



to die if I would not be good, and thereupon she 
leaned back in her arm-chair, closed her eyes and 
made believe to be dead. I have never felt any- 
thing so vivid as the pang of terror with which I 
saw my dear one, immovable, absent — for our 
destiny did not permit that I should watch her 
last moments. Wild with grief I sprang at her 
and bit my teeth in her arm. I can still hear 
her scream ! But I could only say, in answer to 
all reproaches ; 4 Why did you die ? Oh, will 
you ever die again ? 9 " 1 

When Ernest Renan was five years old and 
his sister just turned seventeen, their father's ship 
came into Treguier port without a skipper. None 
has solved the mystery of the end of Captain 
Renan. Did the sea wash him overboard ? Did 
he seek in suicide the bitter remedy for his 
troubles ? His body was washed ashore off the 
sandy coast of Erqui. He died in debt. Not 
mere anxiety, but real poverty, was henceforth the 
portion of his little household. 

Everyone at Treguier knew and respected the 
Renans. The widow was left undisturbed in her 
little home ; her creditors were confident she 
would pay off, little by little, her heavy inherit- 
ance. But it is difficult for an inexperienced 
woman to earn, for the mother of three children 

1 " Ma Soeur Henriette," p. 13. 



HENRIETTE 17 



to save. I suppose they had some thoughts of 
letting the little Treguier home, for after the 
unhappy skipper's death, when Alain left to make 
his way in Paris, Madame Renan, Henriette, and 
Ernest removed to Lannion, where the widow 
had the support and comfort of her own family, 
respectable and well-to-do people of the trading 
class. Neither Henriette nor Ernest liked the 
change. 

The country between the sea and Lannion is 
the very cradle of romance. On the sandy shore 
near Plestin, King Arthur fought the dragon ; at 
Kerdluel he held his court. Scarce a gun-shot 
from the coast there gleams the isle of Avalon. 
But in the most romantic neighbourhood, the life 
of a country town is essentially commonplace. 
The uncles and aunts of the little Renans 
had not much in common with Launcelot or 
Enid. 

These small shop-keepers, in their trivial and 
difficult prosperity, these worthy Marthas troubled 
about many things, had little in common, either, 
with our two immature idealists. Henriette 
especially felt the transplantation. Her delicate 
and tender spirit seemed to soar ever upward, like 
the distant spire of Treguier, further, further, from 
this too solid earth. Home-sick for Tr6guier and 
heart-sick for her dead father, Henriette Renan 

B 



1 8 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



saw nothing in this world to tempt her from her 
wish to enter a convent. Ernest was the confi- 
dant of her vocation, and their happiest moments 
were these winter evenings when they would slip 
away to church together, the tall sister walking 
briskly with little Ernest completely hidden under 
the ample folds of her Breton cloak. Which was 
the happier then ? She, God in her heart, the 
child she loved at her knees ? Or the little lad 
himself, delighted to move in this warm loving 
darkness, clinging to his sister's skirts, crunching 
under his feet the fresh, firm snow ? Long after- 
wards, this would still be their relation, on the 
one side a tender guidance, on the other a con- 
fident and happy clinging ; and, as long as she 
lived, the cloak of Henriette Renan comforted her 
brother in this frosty world. 

It was Ernest, after all, who proved the chief 
obstacle to Henriette's vocation : Ernest's future 
and her father's memory. The poor child, with 
her delicate sense of honour, could not rest happy 
till those debts were paid. How was her mother 
to pay them ? Or Alain, in his 'prentice years ? 
It was all very well for the creditors to be patient : 
until the last sou was paid her father's name was 
that of a bankrupt. And then, Ernest ! 

One day Henriette noticed a certain careful 
awkwardness in the gait of her little brother, 



HENRIETTE 



19 



always a slow and heavy child. Her attention 
discovered his timid endeavour to hide an un- 
seemly rent in his baby garments. Poor child ! 
Such a humble little effort to be decent in 
tatters, was too much for Henriette's vocation. 
From that moment the convent was done with. 
She burst into tears and vowed to devote her- 
self henceforth to the welfare of this patient 
brother, who, with delicate instincts, seemed 
destined to cope unaided with the sordid struggle 
for existence. 

From that moment, Henriette Renan was the 
head of the household. Young as she was, a 
mere girl, inexperienced, she resolved to get the 
better of ill-fortune. The resolve of a Breton is 
a very dogged thing. Like that stone which a 
Yorkshireman keeps seven years in his pocket 
before he turns it, and then seven years more before 
he flings it, the resolve of a Breton is a thing 
which can bide its time. None of the British 
Celts possess that union of a tenacious obstinacy 
with a very sweet and tranquil temper which is 
the strength of the Breton. To go on willing the 
same thing for years, quietly, without making 
yourself or other people unnecessarily miserable 
about it, is, it must be owned, a great secret. And 
if the Breton neither drank nor dreamed — if the 
Breton cared in the least for success — there would 



20 



LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



be no pulling against him in the race. Henriette's 
early efforts were all unavailing. First she at- 
tempted the thing which lay to her hand : she 
went back to Treguier with her mother and 
Ernest and tried to set up a school in their old 
home. Then in 1835, she started for Paris, as 
governess in an establishment for young ladies. 
Before leaving her dear Treguier on this desolate 
adventure, she received an unexpectedly brilliant 
offer of marriage from a man, much her elder, 
who felt the charm and rare devotedness of this 
fragile creature. But a hint that he did not 
mean to espouse her relations alarmed the high- 
strung Henriette and sent her off at a tangent on 
her career of self-sacrifice. She felt, it seems, 
some inclination for the kind and wealthy neigh- 
bour who shared her tastes and who offered her 
a Breton home. But, her father's debts — but, 
Ernest's future ! How could she forsake the two 
most helpless things in the world, the dead, and 
a child ? She thought of them. As for the 
happiness of Mademoiselle Renan and her estab- 
lishment in life, these were very secondary con- 
siderations. It was unfortunate, doubtless, that 
she was so morbidly timid, so afraid of strangers, 
so easily home-sick. She must try to overcome 
these failings. So she packed her trunk, 
pinned on her old green shawl, kissed a long 



HENRIETTE 



21 



good-bye to all she loved on earth, and, with a 
last cruel wrench as she crossed the threshold, 
she took her place in the Paris coach and watched 
the spire of Treguier till it faded to a smoke-line 
in the distance. 



CHAPTER III 



THE SEMINARY 

MADAME REN AN was no less religious than 
her children. But she wore her religion 
with a difference. A bourgeoise of Lannion, with 
a quarter-strain of Gascon in her, she was less 
dreamy than the family she had married into : 
these Renans, obstinate, ruminating men — skip- 
pers like her husband and her father-in-law, or 
bards and vagabonds like Pierre, her brother-in- 
law. Madame Renan's faith was, naturally enough, 
a little different from her daughter's ; less a per- 
petual elevation of the soul by thought and prayer 
than a convenient guide to life and death, cheerful 
on the whole, abundantly illustrated with all the 
most agreeable legends. She was an excellent 
churchwoman. She had brought up her eldest 
son to trade, but the dear desire of her heart was 
that her Benjamin — her last born gifted darling — 
should become a priest. 

Ernest was not six years old when first his 
mother placed him under the protection of the 
saints. When the child's father had been brought 

22 



THE SEMINARY 



23 



home and buried, she took the little lad by the 
hand and led him outside the town to the shrine 
of St Ives. St Ives is the greatest saint in 
Brittany — the advocate of all good Bretons in the 
heavenly courts. Madame Renan confided her 
fatherless son to the guardianship of the immortal 
lawyer. With what feelings since then, we may 
wonder, has St Ives surveyed the career of his 
ward and fellow-townsman ? The point is nice ; 
for St Ives, let us remember, is the patron saint 
of truth. Saint Yves de la Verite may pardon 
some heretical shortcomings to one who chose for 
his epitaph Veritatem dilexi. 

In 1829 Ernest Renan was six years old. The 
child must be taught to read and write, and must 
learn his prayers in Latin. Who so fit as the 
priests of the seminary to educate the ward and 
pupil of St Ives? When, shortly after 1830, 
the Renans returned from Lannion to Treguier, 
in order for Henriette to prosecute her scheme of 
school keeping, Ernest was placed under the care 
of the priests. There is an excellent seminary at 
Treguier : Renan never ceased to commend the 
virtue, the simplicity, the kindness, the intellectual 
integrity of his earliest pastors and masters. These 
ecclesiastics taught him mathematics and Latin ; 
they taught him little else. The notes of the 
teachers of Ernest Renan are still in the posses- 



24 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



sion of his family. They are excellent notes; 
docile, patient, diligent, thorough, are adjectives 
which recur. We read, however, that " Ernest 
Renan is sometimes inattentive during service in 
church." 

Renan never ceased to extol the education 
given him by the priests. " They taught me the 
love of truth, the respect for reason, the earnest- 
ness of life. And these are the one thing in 
which I have never varied. I left their hands 
with a soul so tried and fashioned by them that 
the light arts of Paris could only gild the jewel : 
they could not change it. I believe no longer 
that the Christian dogma is the supernatural 
epitome of the sum of human knowledge : but I 
do believe, I do still believe, that our existence 
is the most frivolous of things, unless we conceive 
it as a grand and perpetual duty. Old and dear 
masters, nearly all of you dead to-day, whose 
image often visits my dreams — not as a reproach, 
but as a mild and charming memory, I have not 
been as unfaithful to you as you think ! At heart 
I am still your disciple." 

Twice a day, regular as clockw r ork, Ernest 
Renan might have been seen walking slowly 
up the steep High Street to the college. The 
years went by, the child of eight or nine became 
a lad of fourteen, but the mien never altered, nor 



THE SEMINARY 



25 



the slow, sober gait, already a little rheumatic, 
nor the amiable unremarking gaze lost in some 
pleasant dream. Be sure that he took never a 
glance nor a step more than was needful ; for this 
child, so curious in all matters moral or intellectual, 
was the least observant of mortals. Renan was a 
gifted rather than a clever lad, more meditative 
than brilliant, honest and profound rather than 
quick or versatile. His lighter gifts and graces 
came to him when youth was over. A certain 
heaviness and slowness, always characteristic of 
his appearance, appeared as yet to cling round his 
intrinsic genius, like the protecting envelope about 
the unripe burgeon. Laborious, conscientious, 
eager to please, he was not only the gifted but 
the good boy of the college. 

No child was more studious, more docile, more 
easily contented. When the day's task was done, 
no game, no long walk, no birds-nesting or black- 
berrying excursion tempted this odd schoolboy, 
always difficult to stir and averse to movement. 
He would take his book and sit in the inglenook 
on winter afternoons, or in the summer he would 
saunter round the cloister and watch the one 
old cow tethered amid the thick grass of the 
tombs. Life was full of interesting things. His 
mother's narrow house contained treasures of 
amusement. The child knew how to make a 



26 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



great deal of happiness out of little things. He 
had brought back from Lannion wonderful archives 
of old bills found in his grandmother's garret : the 
quaint Gothic letterings of the headings filled his 
baby-soul already with the true historian's feeling 
for the Past. "There has been a deal of love spent 
on these," he used to say. Then there were long 
political discussions with Marie- Jeanne, the little 
maid-of-all-work ; interminable musings over an 
odd volume of the " Cantiques de Marseille"; best 
of all there were the vast histories, the complicated 
and intricate Breton souvenirs and legends which 
would fall, hour after hour, from the lips of 
" Maman " as she sat busy with her sewing or 
her knitting. Beloved " Maman," gayest and 
happiest of women, from whom the child inherited 
his temper of serene contentment, I think she 
taught him more, with her fund of myths and 
legends, than the good fathers up at the college, 
with all their Latin ! For here, in the peaceful 
house - place, the future historian of religions 
learned, as unconsciously as a child learns his 
mother's tongue, how the unknown becomes the 
supernatural in a rustic imagination, and how, in 
another wise, a fact becomes a faith. 

He learned other lessons which were to shape 
his life no less. Every influence taught him the 
duty of honour, the value of disinterestedness. 



THE SEMINARY 



27 



These qualities were not merely elemental virtues, 
but the privilege of a superior intelligence. All 
the boys at Treguier College who showed an 
unusual aptitude were destined to the priesthood, 
unless they happened to be nobles, born thereby 
to certain other superior duties of their own, 
based on the same foundation of honourable 
disinterestedness. Commerce, money-getting, un- 
inherited wealth, were the pursuits and the 
compensations of men who had failed in their 
studies. Had they been quicker at their Latin 
grammar, they would certainly have chosen to be 
priests. For the self-made man was an inferior 
creature, half-educated, fond of gain, fond of his 
own opinion, harsh to the defenceless, pushing, 
and frequently discourteous ; doubtless useful 
enough in his proper sphere, infinitely below that 
of the priest or the noble. The man who seriously 
respects himself must give his best labours to an 
ideal cause, far removed from his own desires and 
necessities, wholly unconnected with his personal 
profit. No other life can be beneficent or noble. 
. . . Such was the conviction formed in child- 
hood which was to guide Ernest Renan 
throughout his life. But in childhood he 
translated this idea into the limited vocabulary 
of his age. He looked round him : the most 
disinterested, virtuous and studious persons of 



28 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



his acquaintance were the priests at the Treguier 
Seminary. 

His mother was enchanted, the good priests 
smiled acquiescence, when this unpractical, deli- 
cate, sedentary lad, who was always first in the 
class-room and last in the play-ground, said, " I 
mean to be a priest ! " Of course Ernest Renan 
meant to be a priest : and, later on, Professor 
at Treguier, and, later still, perhaps, Canon of 
St Brieux. He would become the worthy emu- 
lator of his teachers ; and, since he loved books, 
— who knows ? — -he might compile or edit some 
history in the style of Rollin. " Maman " would 
live with him always, and keep his house, and 
mend his cassock while she told him stories. 

Man proposes. ... In the summer of 
1838 Ernest Renan carried off all the prizes 
at Treguier College. We can imagine the joy 
of Henriette, withering and paling up in Paris 
from sheer hard work and home-sickness. All 
her heart was in her dear child. The news of his 
triumph flushed her and expanded her, and 
renewed her youth. The silent and reserved 
young governess could not keep this wonderful 
piece of news to herself. Her prophetic heart 
foretold great things for Ernest ! The doctor of 
the school where she taught was among the confi- 
dants of her discreet and tender enthusiasm, and 



THE SEMINARY 



29 



the good man, touched by the unwonted fire of 
this quiet creature, interested also in her Breton 
Phoenix, spoke to some of his friends about the 
marvellous boy of Treguier. 

Among others he spoke to Monsieur Dupan- 
loup, an elegant and brilliant — nay, the most 
elegant and the most brilliant — Parisian eccle- 
siastic. At that moment Monsieur Dupanloup 
was superior of a Parisian seminary which he had 
founded in order to give educational advantages, 
of an altogether exceptional kind, to young nobles 
and theological students. St Nicholas du Char- 
donnetwas meant to be a hot-bed of Catholic fervour 
and Catholic genius. Success, brilliance, talent, 
were among the evangelical virtues specially culti- 
vated there. In the eyes of Monsieur Dupanloup 
the glory of God, the mysterious Shechina, was 
a very visible and glittering light of a somewhat 
superficial radiance. This Parisian recruiter of 
Catholic genius was quite aware that good things 
might come out of Brittany. . . . Chateaubriand 
. . . Lamennais . . . When he heard of the Phoenix 
of Treguier, " Send him to me at once ! " he 
decreed. 

Renan was fifteen and a half. 

" I was spending the holidays wtth a friend 
near Treguier. On the afternoon of the 4th of 



30 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



September a messenger came to fetch me in great 
haste. I remember it all as if it were yesterday ! 
We had a walk of about five miles through the 
country fields, then, as we came in sight of 
Treguier, the pious cadence of the Angelus, 
pealing in response from parish tower to parish 
tower, fell through the evening air with an inex- 
pressible calm and melancholy. It was an image 
of the life I was about to quit for ever. 

" On the morrow I left for Paris. All that 
I saw there was as strange to me as I had been 
suddenly projected into the wilds of Tahiti or 
Timbuctoo." 1 

In Paris, at the seminary of St Nicholas du 
Chardonnet, the Phoenix of Treguier appeared 
but an awkward youth. Pale, sickly, ungainly, 
his stooping shoulders crowned by a head dis- 
proportionately large, the unprepossessing lad was 
as dull in manner as plain of face. He went mus- 
ing all alone, brooding ever in a solitary reverie, 
his fine eyes seldom lifted from the ground, his 
subtle, humorous, delicate smile extinguished in 
utter homesickness. 

Every now and then Henriette, in her old green 
shawl that spoke of Treguier, would call to see 
him in the parlour. And the rest of the time the 
unhappy boy struggled and stifled in the Slough 
1 " Souvenirs d'enfance et de Jeunesse," p. iju 



THE SEMINARY 



3i 



of Despond, where the foot sinks hourly deeper, 
whence the soul, past hope, desires no escape. 
The professors at the seminary must have been 
sorely disappointed in their Breton prodigy. But, 
one morning, the priest committed to read the 
letters written by the pupils to their parents, was 
struck by the profound, the yearning tenderness 
and heartbreak of Ernest Renan's outpouring to 
his mother. He set the letter apart and showed 
it, in some surprise, to the director, Monsieur 
Dupanloup. That evening contained the weekly 
hour appointed to read out, in presence of 
Monsieur, the list of the places taken by the 
boys in their different forms. Renan was fifth or 
sixth in composition. 

" Ah ! " cried the director, " had the theme been 
the subject of a letter I read this morning, Ernest 
Renan would have been first ! " 

From that hour he followed the lad in his 
studies, guided, supported, bewildered, enchanted 
him, and made the new interest of his life. Ernest 
Renan was not to die of nostalgia, after all. But 
something died in him all the same. " The 
Breton died in me ! " he used to say. The 
transition had been too brusque for his honest 
heart, for his solid and logical mind. What was 
there in common between the archaic faith of the 
Treguier priests and this brilliant, decorative, 



32 



LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



literary and quasi-scientific Catholicism of Paris ? 
Nothing which seemed important in the eyes of 
Monsieur Dupanloup appeared supremely needful 
to those Breton saints. How could the same 
august and sacred name shelter two incompatible 
spirits ? If the one were true, the other must be 
false. If the one were false, the other might be 
false. If both were true, then Truth was no 
longer a thing one, simple and sole, but complex, 
infinite, susceptible of variation. These were the 
thoughts which darkened the mind of the young 
seminarist. He repulsed them as temptations, 
and redoubled his religious practices. 

" He was," writes the Abbe Cognat, " one of the 
most devout of us in his pious reserve : chorister, 
writer of hymns, dignitary of the Brotherhood of 
Mary. Nor was he without a touch of supersti- 
tion in his piety : never, for instance, did he forget 
to introduce a cross in the flourish which termin- 
ated his signature." 1 

If the Breton died at St Nicholas du Chardonnet 
— and I, for one, stoutly deny that he died — " the 
Gascon in me," wrote M. Renan much later, " saw 
abundant reasons to live." 

The atmosphere of St Nicholas was no longer 
the still and humid air of Tr£guier cloister. 
The breath of the boulevards penetrated through 

1 Abbe Cognat : M. Renan. Hier et Aujourdhui. 



THE SEMINARY 



33 



a thousand fissures into the closed circle of 
the seminary. Rollin was no longer the ideal 
man of letters, for the students discussed with 
passion Michelet, Lamartine, Victor Hugo, those 
rising glories of the hour. 

" I discovered that there was a contemporary 
literature. I learned with stupor that knowledge 
was not a privilege of the Church. My masters 
at Treguier had been far more advanced in Latin 
and mathematics than my new professors. But 
they dwelt sealed in a catacomb underground. 
Here, in Paris, the air of the outer world circu- 
lated freely. New ideas dawned upon me. I 
awoke to the meaning of the words, talent, fame, 
celebrity. A new ideal swam into my ken. 
This, perhaps, was what I had longed for so 
vainly, so vaguely, in the dim cathedral aisles of 
Treguier ! " 1 

1 u Souvenirs," p. 185. 



C 



CHAPTER IV 

A DOUBTFUL VOCATION 

T IFE, which already had set a dozen fatal 
4 questions to germinate in Ernest Renan's 
mind, had shaken the very foundations of the faith 
of Henriette. Already at Lannion, on the very mor- 
row of her vocation resisted, she had begun to doubt 
of the truth of Christianity — a strange thing when 
one thinks of the girl's age and her environment. 
Unhappy as a governess, she no longer desired 
to be a nun. The Paradise of her old dreams 
appeared to her as a poor piece of man's work, 
a projection of the human fancy ; and the 
adorable Mary, the hierarchies of saints, nay 
even the Good Shepherd, in whom she had 
believed, seemed so many sacred and pitiful 
ghosts. But out of the ashes of this old faith, 
reverently lifted on to the high places of the soul, 
there leapt a brighter flame, a new religion, 
imprecise, without text or dogma, and almost 
wholly moral : a belief in the vast order of the 
universe, speeding through cycles of time towards 
some Divine intent, and furthered in its grand and 

34 



A DOUBTFUL VOCATION 35 



gracious plan by every private act of mercy or 
renouncement, by all the tendency of effort which 
makes for righteousness. 

Thus believing, however reverent towards the 
faith which had nurtured and prepared her 
soul, Henriette beheld with much misgiving her 
brother's progress towards the altar. How should 
a boy of fifteen appreciate the sacrifice demanded 
of him ? The lips said : abrenuntio I but the 
child knew not what he renounced. Most sisters 
would have thought, first of all, that he cut himself 
off from love, but I believe Henriette's instinctive 
thought was that he cut himself off from liberty : 
that the child bound the man to think as the 
child, — that the child bound the man to obey as 
the child, and bound him into an intricate and 
inextricable fabric from which there could be no 
subsequent deliverance save at such a cost of 
good name, public respect, and ancient friend- 
ship as made her pale to think of. But Henri- 
ette was aware that the only fruitful change in 
spiritual matters, is that which begins within. 
Her meddling could do no good, only harm. 
The child might take his vows and keep them all 
his life long in perfect inner liberty, his heart 
remaining in accordance with his rule. She said 
nothing, therefore, only in silence vowed him her 
devoted sympathy if this should not be the case. 



36 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



Half hoping, half fearing, lest he should outgrow 
the vocation so placidly accepted, she went 
week after week to see him in the parlour of St 
Nicholas, and let no word pass her lips that might 
hasten the issue. 

But there came an end to these visits. Henri- 
ette found the struggle for life hard in Paris. 
Few were the savings she could send to Treguier. 
When Count and Countess Andrew Zamoyski 
offered her a brilliant situation, amply paid, she 
accepted. She went out into exile in Poland, 
trebly far way in those days of post-chaise and 
travelling-coach — into a climate peculiarly un- 
suited to her fragile constitution — into a foreign 
country which, among its population, contained not 
one friendly face. Poor timid soul, the ten years 
of her engagement, the last ten years of her youth 
thus offered up in filial sacrifice, must have ap- 
peared in the prospect longer than all her past. 
Yet she set out, in 1840. Doubtless, when she 
bid good-bye to the dear young brother whom 
at their next meeting she should find a man, 
she did not dream that, from the vantage 
point of distance, she should become more 
familiarly his confidant, far more intimately his 
guide and true Egeria, than in the happiest days 
of their companionship. All that Jacqueline 
Pascal was to the great tormented soul of her 



A DOUBTFUL VOCATION 37 



brother, Henriette was gradually to grow to 
Ernest Renan. 

Some short while after Henriettas departure, 
Ernest Renan was promoted from the seminary 
of St Nicholas to the more advanced college of 
Issy, in the suburbs of Paris. There is no class 
of philosophy at St Nicholas. In the French 
University our fifth form corresponds to the 
class of rhetoric, our sixth or highest form 
to the class of philosophy, which is the direct 
portal to the Sorbonne, the Ecole Normale, or 
one of the various special schools of law, medi- 
cine, engineering, and the art of war. Something 
of this order is maintained in the seminaries. 
After the class of rhetoric, St Nicholas sends 
such of its pupils as are destined for Holy Orders 
to study philosophy in the great diocesan seminary 
of St Sulpice, which reserves for their accommoda- 
tion its country house at Issy. Two years later, 
the seminarists are received into the vast 
establishment of the square St Sulpice at Paris, 
where they are initiated into the mysteries of 
theology. 

Issy is an old French country house — a 
small suburban palace which belonged from 1606 
to 1 6 1 5 to Queen Margot of gallant memory. 
The worthy fathers have since added a few 
wings, a few aureoles, a blue mantle or so, to the 



38 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



mythological personages on the walls, and nothing 
else has been altered in the pavilion of the Queen. 
The long, low house looks on to a park planted 
in the usual French fashion with clipped alleys 
of lime and hornbeam enclosing wide irregular 
lawns where the flowers spring and the hay grows 
and ripens as nature wills. Not only in hay- 
time, but right through the autumn and on sunny 
winter days, Ernest Renan might have been found, 
spending his hours of recreation on a stone bench 
under the leafless limes, wrapt in a great houppe- 
lande or French Inverness-cloak. There, imper- 
vious to cold and damp, he read his book, without 
a glance, without a word, for aught around him. 
Every now and then M. Pinault, the reverend 
professor of mathematics, would stop to gibe at 
him : 

" O, the dear little treasure ! Look at him, 
don't disturb him. Now, pray, don't disturb 
him. See how completely he has rolled himself 
in his form ! Mon Dieu ! he will always be like 
that ! He will study ! — study ! — study ! Poor 
sinful souls will appeal to him for help. He will 
go on studying. He will murmur : Leave me ! 
Leave me ! I am just at such an interesting 
point ! " 

Ernest Renan would look up at his tormentors, 
a little troubled by the acuteness of the shaft, 



A DOUBTFUL VOCATION 39 



would heave a sigh, and would, in fact, go on 
studying. 

Renan had entered Issy with a passion for 
Catholic scholasticism. The seriousness of his 
intelligence was satisfied by the vast and solid 
fabric of Catholic theology. Here was a subject 
more to his mind than Monsieur Dupanloup's 
course of rhetoric ; more to his mind even than 
those first fevered readings of modern romantic 
literature, though these had left an ineffaceable 
impression on his talent. But now he had come 
to the heart of things. " I had left words for 
facts. I was about to examine the foundations, 
to analyse in all its details, this Christian religion 
which appeared to me the centre of all truth." 

And hand in hand with the Catholic " philo- 
sophy of Lyons," Renan studied the Scotch 
metaphysicians. For some months Reid re- 
mained his ideal : — " My dream was the peaceable 
life of a laborious ecclesiastic — Reid or Male- 
branche — attached to his duties, relieved from 
his parish work on account of the value of 
his researches. Not until later did I perceive — 
with that degree of certainty which soon was 
to leave my mind no room for choice — the 
essential contradiction between these metaphysical 
studies and the Christian Religion." 1 

1 " Souvenirs," p. 217. 



40 



LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



After Reid came Malebranche, then Hegel, 
Kant, and Herder. From the first page, these 
more audacious and more universal thinkers 
exercised on Renan's mind an irresistible attrac- 
tion. " I studied the Germans," he has written 
more than once, " and I thought I entered a 
Temple ! " A temple, indeed, vaster than any 
church. ... At the two remotest poles of human 
thought there are situate two opposite conceptions 
of the universe. Orthodox and traditional trans- 
cendentalism shows us a definite act of creation, 
a living God, a Providence which guides the 
world, and the infinite army of the immortal 
souls of men. At the furthest extremity of 
metaphysical science exists the mystical doctrine 
of immanence, which, in place of a definite 
creation, explains the universe by the gradual 
evolution of a germ. All Being is Becoming : an 
eternal process, an infinite continuance, over which 
an unconscious deity broods in the abyss. The 
universe is animated by one single Soul, in whom 
all living beings share, but of which, so to speak, 
they only enjoy the usufruct, since they fade and 
vanish like sparks that fly upwards, while It 
remains eternal. Of these two creeds, Renan 
was bound in honour to believe the first. Little 
by little, he inclined towards the second. 

The retentive and tenacious mind of Renan 



A DOUBTFUL VOCATION 41 



let nothing slip of these early readings. All his 
philosophy is there in germ. The mystical 
pantheism of Herder, the Hegelian idea of 
development, supplied him with the theory of 
evolution — of a world perpetually in travail of 
a superior transformation. Kant renewed for 
him the impelling principle of Duty. And 
Renan's theology is contained in a phrase of 
Malebranche's — Dieu n'agit pas par des volontes 
particulieres : God does not act by special pro- 
vidences. 

" I greatly like your German thinkers (he 
wrote to his sister in September 1842), though 
they be somewhat pantheist and sceptic. . . . 
One's first impression of philosophy is that it tends 
towards a universal scepticism. One is struck 
by the uncertainty of human knowledge, the 
slight foundation for all opinions save those based 
on reason. What we had always taken for 
Truth appears mere prejudice and error. . . . 
Philosophy excites, and only half satisfies the 
appetite for Truth. I am eager for mathe- 
matics ! " 1 

Nothing could be more characteristic of R.enan's 
peculiar intellectual constitution than the manner 
in which this very appetite for proof served to re- 
strain his scepticism. He appears to have decided, 
1 Ernest et Henriette Renan : " Lettres intimes," pp. 88, 96, 97. 



42 



LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



almost immediately, that the pure toil of the 
human intellect in the void could produce no 
solution of the eternal problem. He demanded, 
not a system, but a proof ; and while continuing 
to read Kant and Herder, and especially Male- 
branche, he devoted no less a part of his time and 
strength to the pursuit of mathematics and natural 
science. " Who shall criticise the Eternal without 
knowledge ? " he cried with Job. ... By a sort of 
instinct which had not yet found its right outlet, 
Ernest Renan sought in exact science an answer 
to the terrible problems which philosophy had set 
him, and which the approximative or historical 
sciences were at length to resolve. 

In this state of suspense, voluntarily imposed, 
there were moments when Renan relinquished 
all his doubts with the great cry of Faust : 
Gefiihl ist alles ! His heart had never wavered 
an instant in its absolute attachment to the 
Catholic Church. If faith be a sentiment, if we 
know God only by the heart, then Renan was 
a Christian. No life to him appeared so beautiful, 
so desirable, so true to the highest ideal, as the 
life of a priest. " Even if Christianity be only a 
dream," he writes to his sister in September 1842, 
" Even if Christianity be only a dream, the 
priesthood remains a divine type." Your true 
vocation is revealed by a certain inaptitude for 



A DOUBTFUL VOCATION 43 



any other career. Renan, with his passionate 
love of study, his taste for seclusion, his complete 
incapacity for practical affairs, — Renan, with his 
vague and lofty aspirations towards the infinite, 
seemed born to be a priest. From Issy, in 1843, 
he wrote to Henriette : — " In fact I am only fit 
for one sort of life — a life of study and reflection, 
retired and tranquil. All the ordinary occupa- 
tions of mankind appear insipid to me ; their 
duties taste flat against my palate and their 
pleasures are a weariness. The motives that 
guide them are odious to me. It is clear that 
I am not born for a life of action. 

" A private life would be my happiness. But 
that a man should live merely to himself taints 
his retirement with egoism. Even if it were 
possible that I should live so, and not be a 
burden on those I love ! The priestly life offers 
all I desire without any compensating disad- 
vantage. The priest lives for his fellows : he 
is their repositary of wisdom and good counsel. 
He is a man of study and much meditation, and, 
at the same time, a brother unto his brethren. 
And this is in my eyes the ideal life. 

" I am deep in philosophy and physics — deep 
in Malebranche, the finest dreamer, the most 
implacable logician who ever existed. Yet he 
was a priest. More than that ; he was a monk. 



44 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 

And he lived unmolested in an age when Rome 
was jealous of her powers. See how man, by the 
mere impetus of his own weight, is constantly 
carried up the steeps of Hope ! " 1 

But for Henriette, vehement and tender, he 
would, no doubt, have given way. She, with her 
piercing insight, her wide prescient outlook, her 
innate incapacity for compromise in a case of 
conscience, was for ever exhorting him, enjoining, 
remonstrating. More than once his heart fails : 
" Ah, Henriette, I am weak ! " She will have 
no mercy ! She sees, she feels, all that is fatally 
ignoble, hypocritical, and arid in the life, and at last, 
in the mind even, of the unbelieving priest. That 
vocation which Ernest beheld on its ideal side 
only, she saw in all the formidable consequences 
of its limitless subordination. Can an ecclesiastic 
dispose of his own soul ? Is he not subject, even 
in spiritual things, to the direction of his superiors? 
Should he see the better part, is he always free to 
chose it ? Is he not bound to follow in a track 
made to suit the common herd ? Must not the 
tyranny of custom and number drag down to the 
level of the majority the rare devotees of an ideal 
duty? Anxiously, eagerly, she entreats her 
brother to assume no bond too soon, to wait until 
he be of man's estate before he take upon himself 

1 " Lettres intimes," p. 118. 



A DOUBTFUL VOCATION 45 



the vows and service of a man. " Above all, do 
not think of us — of our family well-being ! There 
is no true claim there. I can suffice ! " She pro- 
poses to him other prospects. As a professor or 
as a public schoolmaster he might live the life of 
study he desires, and be useful to his fellows — 
and yet be free ! She promises to find some 
sure solution — not, no doubt, the ideal of his 
dream. " But that ideal does not exist, I fear, 
upon our work-a-day earth. Life is a struggle. 
Life is hard and painful. Yet, let us not lose 
courage. If the road be steep we have within us 
a great strength ; we shall surmount our stum- 
bling-blocks ! It is enough if we possess our 
conscience in rectitude, if our aim be noble, our 
will firm and constant. Let happen what may, 
on that foundation we can build up our lives." 

Meanwhile, at Issy, other influences, no less 
determined, no less sincere, were concentrated 
upon the unstable soul of Renan. In June 
1843, Renan, towards the end of his course at 
Issy, was informed that he was among the chosen 
few admitted to the tonsure. The young man 
implored a delay, immediately granted : " But 
keep this affair," said his director, " separate from 
the question of your vocation. They are distinct, 
and you know my opinion as to the second." 

" And would you believe," writes Renan in- 



46 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



genuously to his sister, " that I too am now much 
more assured of my vocation. All my directors 
are convinced of it. . . . As for the question 
of intellectual liberty, I have answered myself : 
there are two sorts of independence ; the one 
presumptuous and bold, railing at all that is 
respectable, — this is indeed denied me by 
priestly duty : but in any case, my conscience 
and my desire for truth would forbid me such 
audacities ; of this sort of independence, there 
can, therefore, be no question. There is, however, 
an independence of another fashion, wise, sage, 
respecting what is worthy of respect, despising 
neither beliefs nor persons, examining all things 
calmly, in good faith, using reason as a divine 
gift, and neither accepting nor rejecting any 
conclusion on the mere sanction of a human 
authority. Such independence is open to all 
men, and why not to a priest ? It is true that 
in the case of a priest this liberty is subject to 
a certain restriction from which other men are 
free. The priest must know when to be silent ! 
He must place a guard upon his lips. He must 
not scandalize the weaker brethren ; for their 
name is legion who take umbrage at that which 
they can not comprehend. But, after all, is it so 
hard to keep one's mind to oneself in solitude? 
It is often a secret movement of vanity which 



A DOUBTFUL VOCATION 47 



leads us to communicate our opinions. The law 
of silence ought, perchance, to be the chosen por- 
tion of the lover of peace. ' We must have a 
silent opinion at the back of our mind/ said 
Pascal, ' which is our secret standard in all things, 
while we speak the language understanded of the 
people/ " 



CHAPTER V 



A GREAT RESOLUTION 

T N this frame of mind Renan left the seminary 
at Issy, and proceeded in due form to the 
great College of St Sulpice, in order to take his 
degree in theology prior to entering the Church. 
Here he began to study Hebrew. From the first 
he displayed a singular gift for Semitic philology. 
And this appeared to simplify his career. It seemed 
so obvious that Renan was destined to be professor 
of Oriental languages in a Catholic seminary. 
But in reality, every month of study led him 
further and further from the Church. Here, in 
these questions of date, in this patient study of those 
inflections which serve to prove a date, — here was 
that certainty, that proof positive, for which he 
had so vainly craved in the throes of his doubts. 
Renan, by natural gift, was not a pure thinker, 
but a historian. The proofs of history were, in 
his eyes, the only authentic proofs. And these 
were all against the Church. No impartial philo- 
logist can maintain that the second part of Isaiah 
is due to the same hand as the first. The Book 
4 8 



A GREAT RESOLUTION 49 

of Daniel is clearly apocryphal. Who can sup- 
pose that the grammar or the history of the 
Pentateuch date from the period of Moses? 
Admit one error in a Revealed Text and you 
incriminate the whole. In another order of facts 
it is clear that many a dogma of the Church 
reposes on the erroneous translations of the 
Vulgate. The Church, like the Scriptures, was 
therefore fallible ! 

Meanwhile, St Sulpice laid the accent on 
philology, insisted on Renan's peculiar gift, 
and gave him every possible advantage. A 
special permission allowed him to follow M. 
Quatremere's course of Hebrew and Syro-Chaldaic 
tongues at the College of France. In 1844 he 
was intrusted w r ith a preparatory class of Hebrew 
grammar at St Sulpice. At twenty-two years of 
age the young professor applied to the Semitic 
languages the system which Bopp had recently 
deduced from the comparison of the different 
Indo-European tongues. Renan's General History 
of Semitic Languages was to spring from this class 
at St Sulpice. 

The young scholar tried to stifle his doubts, to 
apply himself relentlessly to exact studies, to pay the 
least possible attention to his religious convictions. 
A professor in a seminary would not need the living 
faith of the simple parish priest. Alas, his exact and 

D 



So LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



patient mind assimilated all the knowledge afforded 
him by the College of France, and by his masters 
at St Sulpice, and found therein new material 
for disbelief. But while his reason disengaged 
itself day by day from the authority of the 
Church, his heart found every day some new 
reason to be grateful. Rome has never dis- 
regarded the talents of her servitors. In our 
time she is especially tender to such of them 
as show a superior capacity for science : since 
at that outpost she is most frequently attacked. 
The directors of St Sulpice were not at all in- 
clined to under-rate their pupil, they were ready 
to make almost any sacrifice in order to keep 
him where his talents were so greatly needed. 
They hoped also, doubtless, that science would 
prove a derivative, a happy counter-irritant, likely 
to allay the excess of German metaphysics — and 
this shows their sincerity : they could not suppose 
the truth upon the other side ! Who can blame 
their zeal ? They were not only wise and prudent, 
according to their generation ; they were charitable 
with an eternal charity. Their work of faith and 
rescue was, to thern, none the less a work of faith 
and rescue, because it was accomplished with 
an ulterior aim and an extraordinary diplomacy. 

It was of no avail. Renan was honest, and at 
the other end of Europe there was Henriette 



A GREAT RESOLUTION 51 

ceaselessly exhorting him to honesty. In his 
experience, science had confirmed the doubts 
aroused by speculation. He knew what was 
the essential minimum of Catholic belief: and 
he knew that he did not possess it. In this 
mood he returned to Treguier in 1845, to spend 
the summer vacation with his mother. 

" Ah, dear Henriette, the future fills me with 
fear. I, so weak, so inexperienced, so lonely, so 
unsupported, — with only you, five hundred leagues 
away, to help me — how am I to shatter bonds 
so mighty, and to wrench myself from a path 
whither a superior power has led me ! I tremble 
when I think of it ; but I shall not fail. And 
then — do you think I tear my faith out of my 
heart without a pang? Do you think I quit, 
without reluctance, these projects which for so 
many years have made up my life and my happi- 
ness ? And all this world of mine, in which I 
was so at home, will cast me out for a renegade ? 
And that other world — will it accept me ? The 
first loved me, and made much of me : what does 
it not promise even to-day ? Henriette, my good 
Henriette, keep me in heart ! Oh, how sad and 
barren life appears to me in these moments ! . . . 
Oh, my God, into what a snare hast Thou led 
my feet. I can only free myself by piercing my 
mother's heart. Oh, mother ! Mother ! I do 



52 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



all I can to paint the future, to cheer her as best 
I may, to soothe her fears. . . . How often have 
I resolved to cast my doubts and scruples to the 
winds and go straight ahead ! She is there, two 
paces away ! God knows if I love and revere 
her : it is but a torture the more. 1 

" Her endearments break my heart ; her day 
dreams — which she is for ever repeating, and 
which I never find the cruel courage to gainsay — 
are a continual grief. Ah, if she only understood ! 
I would sacrifice everything to make her happy — 
everything except my conscience and my duty. 
Ah, why was I not born a Protestant in Germany! 
Herder was a bishop, and he was barely a 
Christian. But in the Catholic Church there is 
no room for heresy. 

" My German philosophers are my resource. 
There I behold the continuation of Jesus Christ ! 
What sweetness and what strength ! Christ 
will come from the North at His Second Ad- 
vent. . . . 

" I still believe. I pray. I repeat the Pater 
with rapture. I love to be in church. Pure, 
simple, artless religion touches me profoundly 
in my lucid moments : then I feel the perfume of 
1 " Lettres intimes." 



A GREAT RESOLUTION 53 



God. Yes, I am pious, fervidly pious, sometimes, 
in spite of all my doubts, I think I shall always 
remain pious in any case. Piety has surely a 
value of its own — be it merely subjective. 

" Here they take me for a good little seminarist, 
very religious, very gentle. God forgive me, it is 
not my fault ! How could I make them under- 
stand ! I could never put so much German into 
the heads of my honest Bretons. 

" There are moments when I think I will 
amputate my reason, and live only for the mystic 
life. Except my judgment, except the faculty 
which weighs and criticises, the Catholic Church 
responds to every function of my soul. I must 
therefore sacrifice either the Church or my judg- 
ment ... a difficult and cruel operation, but 
God knows I would perform it if I could think 
it His will. Ah ! how I dread the end of the 
vacation ! When it comes to practice, what 
shall I decide ? " 1 

This young Hamlet of the Inner Life was none 
the less a Breton, with a spring of resolve in him 
on which he did not count enough. More than 
once in his career the man who — in the phrase 
of Montaigne — was among all others " undulating 
and diverse," was to exhibit this same admirable 
obstinacy for conscience' sake. He left Treguier 

1 Letters to the Abbe Cognat : " Souvenirs," p. 382 et seq. 



54 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



on the 9th of October 1845, and returned to 
St Sulpice prepared to temporize and dally, far 
from certain of his future choice. A sort of 
innocent duplicity made the constraint of pious 
practices not entirely odious to him ; a certain 
artless macchiavellism, which he never lost, made 
the difficult and mortal game he played rather 
interesting, than merely cruel, or repugnant. 
Moreover, the beauty of Catholicism satisfied 
his artistic instincts, his tender sensibility. And 
his education had fostered in him his natural 
optimism, so that he still sometimes envisaged, as 
quite practicable, heaven knows what chimaeric 
fusion between an inward sincerity and an out- 
ward observance of the Noble Lie. But his religious 
education had also fostered in him an extraordin- 
ary strength of conscience — backed at the last 
extremity, as we have said, by the Breton's 
doggedness. 

It was evening when Renan arrived in the 
square of St Sulpice. A surprise awaited him. 
The directors, who had dallied and gone saunter- 
ing long enough, thought the moment had come 
for a brusque tightening of the rein, for a flying 
leap over the hedge. Renan found himself no 
longer a pupil of the seminary. During his 
absence he had been appointed professor in the 
Archbishop of Paris's new Carmelite College. 



A GREAT RESOLUTION 55 



To accept was to give a pledge of good faith to 
the Church. To refuse so honourable a position 
was inexplicable. Renan sought his superiors, 
explained his whole position, his doubts, his 
scruples, which, instead of diminishing, in- 
creased with every month. Once at bay he 
stood firm, refused to temporize, and showed 
the obstinate grit in him. The Fathers im- 
mediately gave way ; their bonds apparently 
fell from him. The same evening, with- 
out any sort of scene or storm, desperately 
alone, but not outcast, the young seminarist 
crossed the threshold of the seminary, traversed 
the square, and entered a small semi-clerical hotel 
at the north-western corner of it. 

" A man of much talent said once of M. 
Renan : — 

" ' Renan thinks like a man, feels like a woman, 
and acts like a child/ " 

" Did he act like a child, the poor young 
Breton who fled from St Sulpice aghast because 
he no longer thought the lessons of his masters 
all quite true ? It was, perhaps, a piece of 
childish folly to renounce the splendid future 
which awaited him in his chosen path, to affront 
extreme poverty, without resources, without pros- 
pects, sustained by the sole impossibility of 
living for aught else than a conviction. Those 



56 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



who think that the hall-mark of a man is his 
sincerity in regard to the world and his own soul, 
will grant that on that occasion the child showed 
himself twice a man." 1 

1 James Darmesteter : Ernest Renan. " Critique et Politique," 
p. 63. 



CHAPTER VI 



DOMINUS PARS 

Paris, Rue du Pot-de-Fer 
October i^th, 1845. 

" A T last, my Henriette, my dearest friend, I 
can pour out all my heart, I can tell you 
all the trouble which corrodes my soul ! The 
last few days count in the record of my life ; 
perhaps they are the most decisive, certainly the 
most painful I have experienced. So many 
events have crossed each other in this narrow 
space that the mere recital of them will imply all 
my feelings. And it will console me to tell you 
everything, for here, now, my isolation is terrible, 
and my lonely, tired heart finds an infinite sweet- 
ness in resting upon yours. 

" Only one word first, dear, of this last vacation ; 
a sweet and cruel time for me. My position was 
of the strangest. To enjoy the companionship of 
my kind mother, to wait on her, caress her, cheer 
her by my day dreams, is so delightful a pastime to 
me that I believe there is no trouble, no anxiety, 

57 



58 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



that I could not forget in her society. And then, 
a peculiar indefinable sense of well-being hangs 
about my native place. All my childhood, so 
simple, so pure, so heedless, survives in its at- 
mosphere, and this revival of my past charms me 
almost to tears. The life of that country is but 
a common, vulgar life, I know. But there is a 
repose about it, a quiet well-being, in which 
thought and feeling, when not prisoned in the 
narrow circle of our daily round, are able to 
exercise their sweet gift of healing. Ah, how I feel 
to the core that vanished sweetness ! I am weak, 
my dear Henriette. I sometimes think I could 
be quite happy in a simple, common life which I 
should ennoble from within. Then I think of 
you and I look higher. 

" Yet in this mild and calm atmosphere of 
Treguier, you can easily see how difficult was my 
position with regard to mamma. She had but the 
faintest suspicion of my state of mind, and she 
tried to trace my secret thought under the least of 
my words and actions. And I was afraid to let her 
see the truth and yet I felt I ought not to conceal 
it. Think how I suffered ! The necessity of 
telling her all, the fear of her cruel disappoint- 
ment, led me, hour by hour, into almost contra- 
dictory courses. And our good mother, with a 
disastrous cleverness, interpreted them all accord- 



DOMINUS PARS 



59 



ing to the desire of her heart. She would take 
no hint, no mere suggestion. At last one day — 
one hour — which I shall never forget, I was 
forced to be more explicit. I said clearly that 
my vocation was doubtful . . . that I must exact 
a delay. Well, from that hour she had been more 
calm. She is less afraid when I speak of study- 
ing in the Paris University, when I speak of a 
possible journey to Germany. I knew how to 
turn all these projects in harmony with her dearest 
scheme — our meeting, the progress of my studies, 
&c. Do not mention to her that I am at an inn ! 
Ah, dear mother, how dear she is to me — my 
greatest happiness but also my greatest trouble. 
I should hate to be vulgar in any part or parcel 
of my inner nature ; but I am sure that I am not, 
in my love for her ! 

" I arrived in Paris on the 9th of October, in 
the evening. That same night I slept at the hotel. 
The next days I passed with all due gravity and 
decorum in terminating my connection with St 
Sulpice. I was charmed by the esteem and the 
affection which the fathers showed me. My 
Hebrew professor has promised to recommend 
me very warmly to M. Quatremere: he holds to 
me as to his favourite pupil. I could not have 
imagined so much broadness of view in the 
strictest orthodoxy. They are persuaded that I 



6o LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



shall return to St Sulpice, and, — would you believe 
it, dear Henriette ? — I like to think so myself, 
and was enchanted to hear them say so. Accuse 
me of weakness if you like. I am not of those 
who take a side, and never lose hold, whatever 
they may think, whatever Science prove. And 
Christianity is so large a thing, a man may well 
hold more than one opinion concerning it, accord- 
ing to the different degrees of his instruction. 
Still, at this moment, I do not see how I can in 
conscience become a Catholic priest. 

" I have seen Monsieur Dupanloup : he was 
delightful ! He granted me an interview of an 
hour and a half — a thing he never does. How 
well he understood me at once ! He did me so 
much good ! He replaced me in my lost high 
sphere, whence these practical preoccupations 
had caused me to fall in some degree. I 
was quite frank and explicit with him, and he 
was very pleased with me. I recognised the 
superior mind in his advice, so clear and to 
the point. He promised to do his utmost for 
me. . . . 

" You must let me assure you, dearest, that, say 
what you will, I cannot spend all this year at 
your expense. I have quite decided to accept 
some post which will not encroach too much upon 
my time and may even be useful to me. . . . 



DOMINUS PARS 



61 



u I have been to see the directors of Stanislas 
College. I had the best of references. Some of 
my old comrades are there and had spoken of me. 
I allow that I should like, best of all, to enter as 
a teacher at Stanislas. There, my dear, I should 
be treated honourably and morally. Perhaps you 
do not like the prospect, as the college is directed 
by ecclesiastics ; but it is formed exactly on the 
model of the University. And I have been most 
frank. I have explained to the provisor the 
reason of my leaving St Sulpice. And think 
what an admirable transition ! No one would be 
astonished to see me pass from St Sulpice to 
Stanislas, and no one would be astonished to see 
me move on from Stanislas to another college 
of the university ! And mamma would be de- 
lighted : it was one of her ideas." 

Stanislas is in fact a Jesuit college participating 
in the examinations and other advantages of the 
lay public schools of Paris. In the touching and 
honourable engagement which the venerable Order 
of St Sulpice was fighting with an inexperienced 
governess in Poland for the soul of Ernest Renan, 
the last rally had not yet been sounded. The 
Church did not by any means despair of her 
acolyte. And he, perhaps, had never felt more 
drawn towards the House of God. 

" I spend my evenings in the church of St 



62 



LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



Sulpice," he wrote to his friend, the Abbe Cognat. 1 
. . . There is no more happiness for me on earth. 
. . . I remember my mother, my little room, my 
books, my dreams, my quiet walks at my mother's 
side. . . . All the colour seems to have faded 
out of life." 

It is probable that the Fathers counted on this 
reaction and were well aware that the towers of 
St Sulpice never look more noble than from the 
other side of the square — from the windows, say, 
of Mademoiselle Celeste's stuffy but respectable 
small clerical hotel. Nor can we wonder at their 
error. They knew their pupil in his sweet 
humour and his docility, in his attachment to 
themselves and to the Church : they knew him 
as an imaginative, serene, and hopeful child ; they 
did not recognise as yet that granite resistance 
which underlay this graciousness of disposition, 
and which it was impossible to undermine. Un- 
impassioned, sincere, curious above all things of 
the truth, Ernest Renan was not to be led in 
any path but that he saw before him. Even 
while the reverend ecclesiastics of Stanislas and 
St Sulpice were putting their heads together in 
a charitable purpose of friendly circumvention, 
Renan was writing to his sister concerning " the 

1 Renan's letters to the Abbe Cognat, during the years 1845-6, 
are reprinted in the Appendix to his <£ Souvenirs de Jeunesse." 



DOMINUS PARS 



63 



singularity of his relations with them, which 
afforded him the opportunity of making the most 
valuable psychological observations." He was 
interested, and touched, and sceptical, and heart- 
broken, with equal sincerity. The fathers, 
strangely enough, knew little of his religious 
scruples : Monsieur Dupanloup alone asserted that 
they amounted to a total loss of faith. Prompted 
by a reserve which made him dread to exhibit in 
public his inmost wound, — and, perhaps, inspired 
by that morbid horror of the commonplace which 
haunted Renan throughout his youth, — he kept to 
himself the moral and philosophical origin of his 
doubts, and put forward only his scientific scruples. 
He was acutely conscious (the theme recurs again 
and again in his letters), that the recalcitrant 
seminarist is rarely a heroic personage. If he 
had to doubt, at least he meant to doubt with 
distinction and originality. 

So he spoke to the astonished Fathers of the 
inexact philology of the Vulgate, or the erroneous 
date assigned by the Church to the Book of 
Daniel. St Sulpice knew how to deal with the 
mere sensuous backslider; it knew how to deplore, 
to deprecate, and if need be to imprecate, the 
torments of revolt, the passionate despair, of a 
Lamennais. It could not take these niceties of 
scholarship so seriously — a mitigated contact 



64 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



with reality would soon, it opined, bring the 
fancies of a dreamer within bounds. 

And doubtless St Sulpice counted also on the 
contrast between the warm kindness of the Church 
and the shrewdness of the world, ever suspicious 
of the unfrocked clerical. Monsieur Dupanloup 
offered his purse to Renan. He can not have 
been quite pleased to hear that, out of her savings, 
Mademoiselle Renan had already sent her brother 
a sum of eight and forty pounds. Moreover, by 
some prodigy of feminine ingenuity, the little 
governess at Zamocz had obtained for her brother 
letters of introduction to the most eminent scholars 
of the day. She had thus made Renan in some 
measure independent of the Church. 

The worst of his trial was now, in truth, over 
for Renan. His great act of resolution had, as it 
were, cleared the air. There was no more com- 
promising. Like many naturally undecided per- 
sons, Renan pursued tenaciously a course of 
conduct once adopted, knowing in what an eddy 
of ceaseless irresolution he would be flung by 
another change of front. Those who met him 
at the moment of his secession from St Sulpice 
observed in him none of the poignant anxiety of 
the Christian who feels his faith slip from him. 
He had the look of a young philosopher, calm, 
resolute, smiling, who sees new immense horizons 



DOMINUS PARS 



65 



open before him. For the moment he was pre- 
occupied by his practical affairs which he took 
seriously, although not tragically. 

It is characteristic of Renan's complex, curious 
and quiet-tempered nature that his change of 
opinion provoked in him no aversion towards his 
lost ideal. He did not desire to burn what he 
had once adored. He went on adoring with a 
difference. He maintained his fealty to M. Le 
Hir as a spiritual superior and chose him for his 
confessor — for this strange apostate continued to 
confess himself and to receive absolution. "It 
does me good, and is a great consolation. I will 
confess myself to you when you are in orders," 
he writes to his friend. He was on terms of 
intimacy — almost of unction — with the Abb& 
Gratry, the Superior of Stanislas. For Renan 
entered Stanislas, as St Sulpice intended him 
to do, much to the distrust and discomfort of 
Henriette. The young usher, at six-and-twenty 
pounds a year, admitted to terms of such flattering 
familiarity with his directors, saw Stanislas at 
first through rose-coloured spectacles. . . . Henri- 
ette's fears are a mythical survival, interesting to 
the scientific observer. 

" Because it is a College of Jes — - . . . Oh, my 
dear Henriette, is it possible that a clever woman 
in the nineteenth century can amuse herself with 

e 



66 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



such nursery tales? In truth, I myself am no 
partisan of the Society : in all the force of the 
term, I do not love it. But from the bottom of 
my heart I laugh at the fantastic imagination 
which sees in it a sort of ogre-scarecrow to frighten 
babes with. It is a really remarkable item of 
psychology, a product of the faculty which 
gave us Bluebeard and other tales of wonder, 
Tis the love of mystery, the human need of the 
fantastic which has produced the legend of the 
Society of Jesus." All the same, a few days later 
our young psychologist left Stanislas, as he had 
left St Sulpice. He had been very happy with 
the Jesuits. But his lucidity saw through their 
judicious wiles. " Tis a duty to go. I have 
made a great sacrifice : it would be absurd to 
hesitate before a small one." 

When, therefore, Renan was required to wear 
a cassock and conform, merely in outward things 
of course, to his ecclesiastical environment, he 
sighed — but went away. " They were very nearly 
taking me again in their net," he wrote to Henri- 
ette. But he left them, shut upon him with a 
pang of regret the door of the House of the Lord, 
and sought that world of laymen which appeared 
to him so sordid, almost immoral, and unfriendly. 
" For I need an atmosphere of moral feeling," he 
remarked to his sister. What he needed still 



DOMINUS PARS 



67 



more was an atmosphere of independence, in 
which to work out his own salvation. That at 
least he found in the school for young gentlemen 
where he was admitted as parlour-boarder — or 
rather as a sort of pupil-teacher, since he received 
his board in return for the lessons he gave. 

The house was in a steep street of the Montagne 
Sainte Genevieve, known to-day as the Rue de 
l'Abbe de l'Epee. In those days it was called 
the Rue des deux Eglises. Renan must often 
have smiled as he read the name. For God 
had led him indeed into the Street of Two 
Churches, nor was the second, in his eyes, less 
holy than the first. 

" Long ago," he writes to the Abbe Cognat, 
" already when I went up to the altar to receive 
the tonsure, I was tormented by terrible doubts. 
But my superior urged me on, and I had always 
heard that it was my duty to obey. So I 
went up, but God is my witness that in the 
intention of my heart, I took for my portion that 
Truth which is the hidden God ! I dedicated 
myself to her quest, for her sake I renounced all 
profane motives and ambitions — nor shall I con- 
sider myself false to my vow until, abandoning 
my soul to vulgar cares, I content myself with 
the material aims which suffice to worldly men. 
Till then, I can repeat, Doniinus pars. . . . Man 



68 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



can never be sufficiently sure of himself to swear 
unwavering fealty to a given system, though at 
the moment. of his vow he hold it true. All he 
may do is to dedicate himself to Truth, whatso- 
ever she be, wheresoever she lead him, no matter 
what the sacrifice she may demand." 



PART II 



CHAPTER I 

NEW IDEAS 

TN the first days of November 1845 Ernest 
Renan entered on his duties at M. Crouzet's 
school. They were not stimulating, they were 
not inspiring, but they left him his whole day 
free for work. During some two hours, of an 
evening, he superintended the studies of seven 
youths who followed the classes of the Lyc6e 
Henri IV. In return, without diminishing his 
sisters little store, he received a place at table 
and a small room to himself. His wants were 
supplied, his liberty was complete, his leisure was 
ample ; save for his state of mind— but that is 
everything ! — he might have been happy. Alas, 
he was dull and sad. The world, in his eyes, 
appeared terribly mediocre : a desert, tediously 
overpopulate, a shabby wilderness of fifth-rate 
souls. He felt numb and shaken as one who 
has had a great fall. A month ago he had been 
almost a priest, belonging by implication to a 
superior order. He had been appointed professor 

71 



72 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 

in the Archbishop's College." He had been re- 
cognised as a Semitic scholar. And behold, he 
was little better than an usher in M. Crouzet's 
school. 

For more than two months he kept his situa- 
tion a secret from his mother. By a pious 
fraud he continued to " paint the future," to speak 
of Stanislas. But too many persons counted 
on Mme. Renan's influence over her devoted 
boy for his position to remain a secret. Poor 
loving woman, she did not attempt to persuade 
him ! She wrote him heart-broken letters. He, 
her delicate lad, her pride, her darling, to think 
he was " on the streets ! " for so she phrased it. 
" You know, dear, even a mouse in your room 
used to keep you awake. You were never used 
to hardship ! 

" O Joseph, mon aimable 
Fils affable, 
Les betes t'ont devore ! 55 

In those first dull November days at M. 
Crouzet's school, something of the melancholy 
which had tarnished all things for the young 
seminarist of St Nicholas hung again over Ernest 
Renan, and menaced him with that creeping 
nostalgia so deadly to the Breton. His letters 
to Henriette are steeped in disappointment. . . , 



NEW IDEAS 



73 



" Now that I see them at close quarters, men 
are less refined, less intellectual than I had 
imagined them. ... I feel lost in this cold 
world, incurious of the Divine. . . . Since Chris- 
tianity is not true, nothing interests me or 
appears worth my attention/' What was the 
use of striving and struggling in this unim- 
portant throng of mortals ? " faime mieux ne 
pas mentir et caresser ma petite pensJe" he wrote 
to the Abbe Cognat in a phrase too charming 
to translate. 

Renan had no longer any hope of regaining 
his faith. . . . Faith is a sentiment, and, once 
lost, there is no regaining it by evidence. . . . 
Doubt is an act of reason in which evidence is 
everything. Once we judge religious history by 
the ordinary rules of scientific criticism, the 
authenticity of Catholic tradition can no longer 
compel our assent. Renan continued to read the 
Scriptures. But the Bible, read as any other 
book, appears merely a collection of Oriental 
masterpieces, beautiful as poetry, valuable as 
history, but holding no peculiar promise for 
our souls. He looked into the empty heavens, 
saw no Christ on His throne there, and brooded 
with an obstinacy which had a sort of pleasure 
in it over the completeness of his desolation. 

This delectatio morosa is dangerous to a con- 



74 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



templative temperament. That way, if not mad- 
ness, melancholia lies ; the disease is potential in 
many Celtic constitutions. F'or some weeks, 
Ernest Renan, so like his mother, felt his father's 
dull and sluggish blood stir ominously at his 
heart. But a fortunate circumstance shattered 
his lethargy. A new friendship absorbed him. 
The oldest of his pupils, a young M. Berthelot, 
some eighteen years of age, was studying ad- 
vanced mathematics and philosophy at Henri IV. 
They lodged on the same landing. 

" It was in November 1845 that I first set eyes 
on Ernest Renan. He was four years older than 
I, but he had, perhaps, even less experience of 
life — if such a term may be used of young men, 
the one eighteen, the other two-and-twenty. He 
had just left the Seminary— not without some 
vague inclination towards a possible resumption 
of the sacerdotal cloth. His gentle, serious bear- 
ing, his taste for things intellectual and moral, 
pleased me at once, and we became friends." 1 

" We had the same religion," says Renan 
simply. 2 " And that religion was the worship of 
Truth." 

Truth is a diamond of many facets, and the 

1 Correspondance Berthelot — Renan. Revue de Paris : 1 5 Juillet 
1897. 

2 Discours et Conferences, p. 231. 



NEW IDEAS 



75 



young men had seen her at different angles. 
Each knew most things the other did not know. 
Renan was already expert in theology, philosophy, 
philology and history. But young Berthelot re- 
vealed to him a new world of vaster vistas and 
more precise perspectives : — the magnificent certi- 
tudes of physical and natural science. Forty years 
after those first conversations in their attics of the 
Rue des Deux Eglises, fragments and echoes of 
those midnight marvels linger still in the mind of 
Renan. 

" How infinitely the atomic theories of the 
chemist and crystallographer surpass that vague 
notion of Matter, which verifies scholastic philo- 
sophy ! . . , 1 

" Think of knowing that our earth is a ball 
some three thousand leagues in diameter . . , 
that the sun, up there, is thirty-eight millions 
of leagues away, and that it is one million 
five hundred thousand times larger than the 
earth ! " 2 

If Spinoza was a God - intoxicated man, 
Renan was a man intoxicated by the splendour 
of the universe ! There are stars whose 
light falls through space ten thousand years 
before it reaches us, falling at the rate of over 

1 Discours et Conferences p. 16. 

2 Feuilles D£tach£es$p. 156. 



76 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



thirty millions of leagues in seven minutes ! 
There are suns, larger than ours, and perhaps 
whole solar systems, in the formless white blurs 
that film the skies on cloudless nights. The 
heavens proclaim, indeed, the glory of the 
Eternal ; and Renan knew how great a tempta- 
tion Job resisted when he cried, " I have seen the 
moon advance in her majesty, O God, and I 
have not bowed the knee ! " 

As the last shreds of his faith fell from before 
him, lo ! in their place he discovered the whole 
unspeakable mystery of the Cosmos. So, with the 
first elements of astronomy and physics, Renan 
learned that passionate devotion to the universe 
which engrosses the whole mind, and makes all 
private sorrow a thing of slight account. Already 
he might have exclaimed with Marcus Aurelius, 
" All that suiteth thee, O Cosmos, suiteth me ! " 
He was in very truth a " citizen of the great 
city," a conscient atom of the whole. The world 
was too vast, our span of years too short, the 
sum of science attainable too tremendous, for life, 
however sad, to be adjudged a failure. Yes, in 
1846 he was already the Renan who, years later, 
wrote of Amiel : " The man w T ho has time to 
keep a private diary has never understood the 
immensity of the universe. There is so much 
to learn ! In face of this colossal piece of work 



NEW IDEAS 



77 



how can we stop to consume our own hearts, to 
doubt, to repine? . . . My friend M. Berthelot 
would have his hands full, had he a hundred 
consecutive lives, nor find in any one of them 
the time to write about himself! . . . Everything 
has to be done, or done all over again, in natural 
and social science. When we feel ourselves 
called to labour at this infinite task, we are too 
busy to pause and brood over the little private 
melancholies we may fall in with by the way." 1 
. . . " When I think of the unique pair of friends 
we were," he says elsewhere, " I see before me 
two young priests in their surplices, walking arm 
in arm. We should have blushed to have asked 
each other a favour, or even a piece of advice. 
Neither of us was greatly occupied with himself, 
and neither of us was greatly occupied with the 
other. Our friendship consisted in what we 
learned together." 2 

Indeed they learned many things together, but 
they learned many things apart. As time went 
on M. Berthelot was drawn more and more 
exclusively into the sphere of physics, and especi- 
ally of chemistry, as we all know, to our admira- 
tion. Semitic philology continued to engross 
M. Renan. He wrote to his sister : " I have 



1 Feuilles Ditachies^ p. 359. 

2 Souvenirs^ p. 339. 



78 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



so many new and just ideas ! I am throwing 
all my heart into my work — all I know and all 
I am — and I have the instinct of success." 

His canvas was the series of lectures which he 
had delivered the preceding year at St Sulpice, 
and which the Abbe Le Hir strongly urged him 
to publish. The book was to be a Hebrew 
grammar. But, in the hands of this ardent 
young thinker, philology became a new instru- 
ment of psychology. For the character of a 
nation is transfixed in its language, and a Hebrew 
grammar is a diagram of the Semitic soul. In 
the speech of the Jew or the Arab, as in his 
nature, you will find something irreductible and 
stubborn, a dignified simplicity, a non-existence 
of the finer shades ; a something monotonous, 
which recalls the desert in its immense unifor- 
mity. So theorised young M. Renan, in that 
general history of Semitic languages which was 
to introduce him to the world of science. 

The first sketch of this important work, 
presented in manuscript to the Academy of In- 
scriptions in 1847, by a young man of four-and- 
twenty, a pupil-teacher in a school for boys, 
obtained the Prix Volney, one of the most 
important distinctions awarded by the Institute 
of France. 



NEW IDEAS 



79 



Thus, barely two years after leaving St 
Sulpice, Renan saw a new career open before 
him. He continued to pass his University ex- 
aminations : he was successively Bachelier and 
Licenci6. In 1 847 he took his degree as Agr6ge 
de Philosophie, that is to say, Fellow of the Univer- 
sity, and, in consequence, he was offered the Pro- 
fessorship of Philosophy in the Lycee of Vendome. 
Here, and later, — during the long vacation at 
St Malo, — Renan occupied his leisure by a thesis 
on Averroes which was to procure him his doctor's 
degree. Half convinced by so much success, his 
mother let herself accept some consolation. Her 
" fils affable " was still her " fils affable " : amiable, 
studious, gifted, as of old. He had come back to 
live with her. His grave morality seemed almost 
orthodox. No scandal had attended his secession 
from the priesthood. " My mother shows the 
truest liberality of mind," Renan wrote to M. 
Berthelot in 1 847 ; "she fully approves my system, 
which is never to express, by word or deed, either 
affection or antipathy for the profession which 
might have been my own. I soon brought her to 
see my point of view. And indeed we have many 
a piquant conversation on this head." But despite 
the charm of home, despite his native air, Renan 
was not happy in the narrow provincial circle 



8o LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



which he had re-entered. He missed the intel- 
lectual stimulus of Paris. He was glad when 
a small temporary appointment, — as assistant 
master in the Lycee of Versailles — permitted him 
to return to the capital and resume his interrupted 
studies. 



CHAPTER II 



1848 

THE father of M. Berthelot was a doctor, an 
intellectual man, above all, a benevolent 
man. His practice was in a poor neighbourhood ; 
of modest origin himself, he was interested in 
many philanthropic schemes. He was a firm Re- 
publican. " The first I had seen," wrote Renan, 
who barely could remember his father and his 
uncles. Opposed to the bourgeois spirit of the 
Monarchy of July, an enthusiastic believer in 
the Socialist transformation of society, Dr 
Berthelot influenced his son and, through him, 
the ever-impressionable Ernest Renan. . . . Yet 
all through the beginning of '48, immersed in his 
studies, the young scholar had listened to his 
friend's gospel with a somewhat vacant ear. He 
was engrossed by an essay on the study of Greek 
in Mediaeval Europe, which appeared to him more 
immediately important. In all things, always, 
he found it hard to take a side. He distrusted 
extremes. His sense of the relativity of appear- 



82 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



ances debarred him from a passionate conviction in 
politics no less than in religion. Moreover, if he 
was by opinion a Liberal, by temperament Renan 
was Conservative. A natural love for the Past, 
a natural dread of innovation, hampered him in 
the sphere of political reform : 

" I shall never break many lances for this sort 
of thing," he wrote to M. Berthelot, in September 
1847. 

Then the Revolution broke out in February. 
The King and his family went into exile. There 
was a riot in May. One morning Ernest Renan 
had to climb a barricade in order to reach the 
College of France. He climbed it and arrived in 
due time at the Sanscrit lecture-room ; but there 
was no lecture that day, and behold ! the College 
was full of soldiers ! The young scholar sighed 
and continued his walk, in order to study Sanscrit 
at M. Burnouf s private house. Civil war reddened 
the streets in June. Ernest Renan awoke in 
earnest and turned all his mind to the prob- 
lems of Socialism. 

I know no page in Flaubert's Education Senti- 
mentale which gives a more vivid picture of a 
political massacre than we find in some of 
Renan's letters to his absent sister. The dreamer, 
startled from his dream, sees the dreadful reality 
before him with a horrified acuteness. 



1848 



33 



2$th June 1848. 
" Frightful sight ! The whole day we heard 
nothing but the whistling of bullets and the clang 
of the tocsin. . . 

2&J1 June. 

" The evening and last night were worse than 
ever. There was a massacre at the Gate of St 
Jacques, another at the Fontainebleau Gate. I 
spare you details. The St Bartholomew offers 
nothing like them. There must be in human 
nature something naturally cannibal which bursts 
out at certain moments. As for me, I would 
willingly have fought with the Garde Nationale 
until, in their turn, the guards became the 
murderers. No doubt they are guilty, these 
poor mad insurrectionaries who shed their blood 
and know not what they ask — but are they not 
guiltier who, by system, have deadened in them 
every human feeling ? " 

1st July. 

"The storm is over, If in such a state of 
things it were permissible to appeal to the artistic 
sense, I would call the Paris of these last days 
the strangest, the most indescribable of great 
sights. A few hours after the fighting was over I 
visited the field of the combat. Unless you 



84 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



have witnessed such a thing, my dear, you cannot 
imagine the great scenes of humanity. In the 
Rue St Martin, in the Rue St Antoine, and in 
the Rue St Jacques, between the Pantheon and 
the Quays, there was not a single house but was 
riddled with cannon-ball. Some of them were 
perforated to sheer open work ! The fronts of 
the houses, all the windows, were pierced through 
and through with bullets — wide streaks of blood, 
broken and abandoned guns, marked the places 
where the fight had been the fiercest. Built with 
a marvellous art, and constructed, not as they 
used to be with heaps of cobblestone, but with 
the large flagstones of the footpath, the barricades, 
with their projecting and retreating angles, had a 
look of fortresses. There was one every fifty 
paces. The Place de la Bastille was the most 
frightful chaos : all the trees cut down or bent 
and twisted by the cannon balls ; on one side 
whole houses demolished or still in flames ; on 
another, veritable towers of defence, built out of 
beams of timber, overturned carriages, and heaps 
of stones. In the middle of all that, a crowd, 
dizzy and half out of its mind ; soldiers worn out 
with fatigue, asleep on the pavement, almost 
under the feet of the people. The rage of the 
vanquished disguised under an affected calm ; the 
disorder of the conquerors opening a path through 



1848 



85 



the demolished barricades — the public pity craving 
alms and lint for the wounded ; all combined in 
a spectacle of the sublimest originality, in which 
the whole gamut of humanity was heard in 
an admirable discord : man, face to face with 
man, naked, without disguise, with nothing but 
his primitive instincts." 

16th July, 

" Horror of exact reprisals ! I am always for 
the massacred, even though they be guilty. The 
National Guard has been guilty of atrocities I 
scarcely dare recount. 

" After the battle was over, posted on the 
terrace of the Ecole des Mines, they amused 
themselves by " potting M at their leisure, as a 
form of recreation, the passers-by in the adjacent 
streets, where the thoroughfare was still open. 
That may have been the last flicker of the fury 
of the fray. But what is awful to think of, is the 
hecatomb of prisoners sacrificed several days later. 
During whole afternoons I have heard the cease- 
less firing in the Luxembourg Gardens — and yet 
the fighting was over ! The sound and the 
thoughts it suggested, exasperated me to such 
a degree that I determined to see for myself, so I 
went and called on one of my friends whose 
windows overlook the gardens. It was too true. 



86 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 

If I did not see the murderers with my own eyes, 
I saw what was worse, what I never can forget, 
and what, if I did not try to lift myself above 
personal sentiments, would leave in my soul an 
everlasting hate. . . . The unhappy prisoners 
were packed in the garrets of the Palace, under 
the leads, in the stifling heat of the roof. Every 
now and then one of them would thrust his head 
out of the dormer window, for a breath of air. 
Each head served as a target for the soldiers 
in the garden below — they never missed their 
aim ! After that, I say the middle class is 
capable of the massacres of the Terror ! " 

ist July. 

" I am not a Socialist. I am convinced that 
none of the theories of the hour is destined to 
triumph, in its actual form. A system — a narrow, a 
partial thing by its very essence — can never realise 
itself. The system is a burgeon which must 
burst its sheath in order to become a truth, 
universally recognised, universally applied. . . . 
I am a Progressist, that is all. ... I persist in 
believing that from petty passion to petty passion, 
from personal ambition to personal ambition, 
through misfortune, through crime and bloodshed, 
we are none the less in the act of a great transfor- 
mation for the greater good of humanity." 



1848 



8 7 



\6th July, 

" The great births of humanity should be seen 
from afar. We see the apparition of Christianity 
as something exclusively pure, sacred, and super- 
natural. . . . And yet what sects, how mad, 
monstrous, and immoral ! — accompanied, and were 
even confounded with that white and beautiful 
doctrine ! . , e We also have our gnostics ! " . . . 

2nd August. 

" Adieu, dear, excellent Henriette ; think often 
of your brother. Never despair of France ! " 1 

I know no more curious moment of psychology 
than the book in which Renan attempted to 
answer the problems posed by the movement of 
1848. The immense volume is as young as a 
primrose, full of the joy of life, full of energy, 
charity, hope — above all, full of faith. The 
crowded, living, voluntary pages stretch out their 
hundred arms to the future like some monstrous 
Indian god, who needs innumerable hands to 
bestow with and to beckon, to bless with and 
to curse, and in whom the vital principle is too 
abundant for symmetry or grace. UAvenir de 
la Science, is our young priest's first sermon, 
heavier, more crammed with matter than those 
1 Lettres de 48. Revue de Paris, 15 Avril 1896. 



88 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



we are accustomed to from his golden lips ; full, 
not only of his own ideas but of the theories of his 
time and his environment. The multiple, hetero- 
geneous masterpiece takes for its text the mystic 
words of the gospel, Unum est necessarium. But 
this one thing needful is the Infinite — the Ideal, 
identic in its essence, whatever be the form in which 
it appears to us: — philosophy, science, poetry, art, 
moral beauty, moral strength, or mere natural 
loveliness, no less divine. To recombine these 
different elements — to trace these divergent rays 
to their common centre, which is God, should be 
the chief end of knowledge. The future of 
science is a new religion, to be founded, not 
on abstract reasoning, not on any pretended 
revelation from on high, but on the most 
patient, the most critical, the minutest study 
of all the material profusely strewn around 
us. Penetrate matter to find the secret soul in 
it ! The study of science is still the service 
of God. Such is the teaching of LAvenir de 
la Science. 

" I am convinced there is a science of the 
Origin of Man which will be constructed one 
day, not from mere ratiocination and hypothesis, 
but from the results of scientific research. He 
who shall contribute to the solving of this problem 
— though his test be imperfect, will do more for 



1848 



8 9 



true philosophy than he had achieved by fifty 
years of metaphysics." 

Even while Renan was writing these lines a 
young naturalist of much the same way of think- 
ing was classing his specimens and comparing his 
notes. Some ten years later, we read the Origin 
of Species, A reaction against the vague and void 
official spiritualism of his day, inclined philosophy 
to draw its conclusions from the exact results of 
science. The tide has now turned so far in this 
direction that we forget the originality, in 1848, of 
doctrines which at present appear the merest com- 
mon-sense. In 1897 all our young philosophers 
are historians, or philologists, or physiologists, or 
students of natural or social science. But, fifty 
years ago, Philosophy was much too great a lady 
to do any useful work at all. She broidered 
her metaphysics in an ivory tower among the 
clouds. 

" Believe me," said Renan, " your true philo- 
sopher is the philologist, the student of myths, 
the critic of social constitutions. By the subtle 
study of speech we remount the stream of time 
till we reach almost the source, till we come 
within hail of primitive man. By comparative 
grammar we touch our first ancestors ; by com- 
parative mythology we understand their soul, 
by social science we watch their development. 



90 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



Every speech, every myth or legend, every form 
of social organisation from the humblest to the 
most august, ought to be compared and classified. 
The man who could thus evoke the origins of Chris- 
tianity would write the most important book of the 
century. How I envy it him ! Should I live and 
do well, I mean that book to be the task of my 
maturity." 1 

Science is thus an instrument of religion, nay, 
more, a religion in herself, modest but veracious, 
never going back from her word. The faith of 
the chosen few, must she remain incommunicable 
to the mass ? How can a religion exclude nine- 
tenths of mankind ? If intellectual culture were 
but a grace the more, but an added enjoyment, 
it might well remain the privilege of the elect, for 
man has no right to happiness. But once we admit 
that science is a religion — a temple where faith 
and truth join hands — how shall we forbid the 
threshold to those who chiefly need a religion ? 
Shall we look upon the poor barbarians as a 
necessary refuse of waste matter? Shall we 
consider only them human who know ? "I have 
seen the massacres of June. I have repulsed in my 
own heart the instinctive wish that the barbarians 
might perish. Shame on such a thought! There 
must be no more barbarians ! 

1 Avenir, p. 278. 



9i 



" Yet it is not easy to see how the many are to 
be induced to work out their own salvation. How 
shall we make a turbulent majority choose the 
better part when, as a matter of fact, it does not 
prefer it, thinks it tiresome, prefers the pothouse 
and the barricade ? The ancients had convenient 
means to this end : augurs, oracles, Egerias, who 
arranged the truth in a way understanded of the 
people. Others have had recourse to armies. . . . 
It is very clear that Science will none of these. 
It is much less clear, however, by what miracle 
she is to descend upon and illuminate the recal- 
citrant mass of the ignorant. . . . 

" Above all let us never dream that Science must 
descend to the level of people. A cheap science, 
an easy science, a popular science, is the most 
useless of catch-words. Science must be serious, 
difficult, comprehensible only to her own adepts, 
in her more abstruse and secret recesses. But 
by the diffusion of a sound elementary instruction 
all may be made capable of understanding the 
value and the gist of these researches — all may 
follow them in their outer circuit ; all may be set 
upon the sacred track. If you object that to 
attain such cultivation, the working class must 
receive more money for less work, in order to 
secure the time for study, I reply : so be it ! Let 
us simplify our lives. I have no objection to 



92 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



the socialistic phalanstery, nor even to a salutary 
reign of terror. These do not interfere with 
Science. The artless life of a community where 
none would be rich or poor may even be favour- 
able to her development, Genius lives on simple 
things, and Spinoza contemplated the divine 
substance in no palace while he polished the 
lenses which brought him bread. Democracy has 
no terror for Science. Let us all be brothers, in 
truth, in simplicity, in generous and confident 
human sympathy." 

Such, in effect, is the gospel which Ernest 
Renan caught amid the gun smoke and the 
ominous fusillades of 1848. It is easy to see 
how much of these theories is natural to the 
author, the result of his real convictions and his 
peculiar temperament, and how much is due to 
the influence of the milieu and the contagion of an 
epidemic enthusiasm. All Renan's later work is 
based on that psychological interpretation of facts 
obtained by a patient scientific method which he 
advocates in his earliest book. His most fantastic 
philosophy has ever a solid piece of sober erudi- 
tion at the base. He often reads too much into 
his text, between the lines, but he starts from his 
text, and never evolves out of his own brain a 
system independent of historic proofs. He applies 
to the history of religion and to the problems of 



1848 



93 



exegesis, the experimental method of a student in 
physics or natural history. Thus, in all essentials, 
the Renan of the Avenir de la Science \ is already 
Renan. True, the Renan of the future was to be 
no democrat. But his turn of mind, infinitely 
aristocratic, infinitely jealous of the rights of the 
minority, was never subject to the powers that 
be. The aristocracy which Renan commended 
was an aristocracy of personal merit, an upper 
house of virtue and intelligence. Spinoza and 
the fishermen of Galilee were the high barons of 
his heraldry. It is impossible to read the tender, 
human, fraternal pages of the Apostles and St 
Paul without perceiving how much of the great 
dream of '48 lingered in the mind of Renan. 
The day was to dawn when, mournfully, he was 
to admit that the barbarians are, in truth, a 
necessary refuse. But his barbarians were not 
merely the unpossessing classes : they were the 
selfish, the dull, the mean, the narrow, in every 
class, high or low, rich or poor, one with another. 

L Avenir de la Science is an example of the 
subjective quality of Renan's imagination. He 
has sympathy in abundance — the subtlest, the 
most penetrating, the most sensitive of any writer 
of his time — but he has not a particle of dramatic 
imagination. He interprets all things by himself. 
If he desire to save Society, he will adjure Society 



LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



to quit the seminary, turn philologist, and set 
itself to study the origins of Christianity. In the 
Avenir de la Science, Renan projects his own 
sensibility and his own experience into Contem- 
porary Society, just as later on he was to project 
them into Jesus Christ and Marcus Aurelius. No 
man ever lived more resolutely in the whole ; but 
in the whole, as he sees it, he puts a reflection of 
himself. He has the extraordinary gift, attributed 
by physicians to certain nervous patients, of ex- 
teriorising his own sensibility. 

By the time Renan had finished his book, '48 
was over, the fever of democracy had passed : the 
young author could only regard his socialistic pro- 
jects as curious examples of the mythopoetic 
faculty. No doubt they interested him from this 
point of view also. Every mode and phase of his 
own and the world's development impassioned his 
eager intelligence. It was all matter for study. 
What though one star fell out of the myriads 
in heaven? What though your perfect demo- 
cracy proved a poet's day dream ? The universe 
teemed with other problems, other mysteries, 
equally important, equally engrossing. 

In 1849, M. Renan obtained from the French 
Government one of those travelling scholarships 
which, across the Channel, are dignified by the 
name of missions. He was to seek in the 



1848 



95 



libraries of Italy certain documents required by 
the Academy of Inscriptions for its Histoire 
Litteraire de la France; he was also to com- 
plete his own thesis on Averroes. For eight 
months Ernest Renan remained in the Peninsula. 

Suddenly freed from the bracing influence of 
his environment in Paris, Renan rapidly regained 
his natural bent : dreamy, idealizing, poetic. More 
than once his letters from Rome must have exas- 
perated his democratic correspondent. 1 There is so 
much religion in them, so much art, vague piety, 
sentiment reflected from the Roman landscape ! 
" Tell me less about the monuments and more 
about the condition of the people" answers, in 
substance, Marcel Berthelot. In vaim ; Renan 
has fallen under the sway of the Past. 

"This journey had the most remarkable in- 
fluence on my mind. I knew nothing of Art, and 
lo ! I beheld her, radiant and full of consolations. 
A faery enchantress seemed to whisper me the 
words which the Church, in her hymn, says to 
the wood of the Cross : — 

" ' Flecte ramos, arbor alta, 
Tensa laxa viscera, 
Et rigor lentescat ille 
Quern dedit nativitas.' 

A sort of soft breeze relaxed my native rigour. 
1 Correspondance Renan- Berthelot, Revue de Paris, 1 Aout 1897. 



96 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



Almost all my illusions of 1848 dropped from 
me, for I saw they were impossible. I recognised 
the fatal necessities of human society, I resigned 
myself to a condition of the creation in which 
a great deal of evil serves to produce a little 
good, where a drop of exquisite aroma is distilled 
from an enormous caput mortuum of refuse." 

Yet, whilst admitting the absurdity of yesterday's 
chimera, Renan did not cease to follow the ever 
beckoning ideal. The Infinite remained the 
eternal guide. And on the ledger of the Monas- 
tery of Monte Cassino he wrote in 1850 : — 

" Unum est necessarwm; Maria elegit optimam partem" 



CHAPTER III 



THE VALE OF GRACE 

nPHE disenchantment which followed 1848 
combined with the divine spectacle of Italy 
to turn the mind of Renan from the future 
towards the past. He saw no longer in his 
dreams a socialistic phalanstery with its Spinoza 
occupied in an optician's work-room. His fancy 
preferred to evoke some steep small Umbrian 
town with Etruscan walls and Roman ruins, with 
mediaeval towers set high above Renaissance 
palaces and the overladen Jesuit churches of 
the Catholic Revival. Here was food for the 
mind : the past is so poetic ! We imagine the 
future so flat and full of prose ! The Celt 
especially is open to the magical pathos of 
historic memories, and, now that once Ernest 
Renan had unsealed his hearing to that siren- 
song, the music of the barricades might pipe to 
him in vain ! 

Impressionable to excess, Renan, while guard- 
ing his will fixed on one steadfast aim, changed 
the colour of his thoughts according to the atmos- 

G 97 



98 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



phere he dwelt in. Imagine a chameleon, pro- 
gressing unswervingly in one direction, but some- 
times blue, sometimes rose, sometimes green, in 
the course of his invariable traject ! Such is 
Renan, the bizarre and eminently Celtic fusion 
of a constant mind with a sensitive temperament. 
Among the marvels of the Sabine Hills, the utili- 
tarian ideal which yesterday he had invoked, 
appeared odious to him. He continued to serve 
Truth and Science — but no longer in the precincts 
of Democracy. Rough-shod, iron goddess, might 
her feet never tread the Seven Hills ! 

" As for me, it is with something akin to terror 
that I face the day when life shall penetrate anew 
that sublime heap of ruins which is Rome ! I 
cannot conceive her other than she is : a museum 
of dilapidated majesties, a tryst for the exiles 
of our work-a-day world, a meeting-place for 
dethroned monarchs, disenchanted statesmen, and 
sceptical philosophers weary of their kind. Should 
the fatal level of modern common-place threaten 
this mass of sacred relics, I would fain the priests 
and the monks of Rome were paid to maintain 
within her ruins their customary melancholy and 
squalor, and to preserve all round about them 
fever and the desert." 1 

Renan's democracy had been a short brain- 

1 Essais de morale et de Critique , p. 2 59. 



THE VALE OF GRACE 99 



fever. It had passed : the coup d'etat disgusted him 
once for all with the lower classes. The develop- 
ment of his ideas made it easy for certain of his 
friends to dissuade him from the publication of 
DAvenir de la Science. Although already in July 
1849 a chapter of the book had been printed in a 
review, with the mention : " to appear in a few 
weeks," the volume did not see the light, in fact, 
until 1890 — less out of date than it would have 
been in the first flush of that reaction which forms 
the morrow of every revolution. Renan had been 
the first to suspect the inopportunity of yester- 
day's gospel. He was no longer under the 
exclusive influence of the Berthelots. On literary 
matters, he consulted Augustin Thierry — his 
mentor in letters — and M. de Sacy : each of 
them advised him to reserve his great work — to 
dispose of it page by page, chapter by chapter, in 
the form of essays and reviews ; but not to over- 
whelm the public with his whole stock of un- 
seasonable riches. 

Thus, in five years, Renan had lost two ideals 
— Christianity and Socialism. Despite his robust 
faith in the future of Science, the present world 
began to wear a disenchanted aspect. Our young 
fanatic of yesterday was in some danger of be- 
coming one of those "sceptical philosophers, 
weary of their kind " for whom the Eternal City 



ioo LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



appeared so convenient a limbo. If we could 
suppose a special Providence designed to watch 
over so notorious a heretic, now was the moment 
for its intervention. And lo ! his sister, having 
finished her ten years' engagement in Poland, 
summoned Ernest to meet her in Berlin. And 
Renan encountered his Egeria. 

" When we meet again, my dear, we shall 
hardly recognise each other," Renan had written 
to his sister years before. And after ten years 
they met. The slim young woman of nine and 
twenty, gracious of aspect, who had bidden fare- 
well to her brother in the seminary parlour, was 
grown into a woman of forty, plain in the face, 
prematurely aged and lined by the hard winters 
of Poland. The girlish lightness had departed 
from her figure ; an affection of the larynx 
threatened the sweetness of her voice. In air 
and dress Mademoiselle Renan affected an elderly 
fashion which nothing in her looks belied. Her 
brother glanced at her, realised the sad change, — 
and worshipped his austere Egeria as a second 
mother, the comforting mother of his mind. She, 
on the other hand, can have seen small trace of 
the ungainly provincial seminarist she had left 
in the travelled young philosopher of seven and 
twenty who stood before her. For a moment 
they were strangers in each other's eyes - — 



THE VALE OF GRACE 101 



but they were intimate to the marrow of the 
mind. 

Henriette returned to Paris with Ernest. She 
had lost her youth and her health in Poland, but 
she had paid off her father's debts, redeemed the 
mortgage on her mother's property, established 
her brother in the way he should go, and a little 
purse of savings remained to set up house with. 
They were to live together. Each had long 
dreamed this dream, and five years before Ernest 
had written— "We shall be so happy, dear ! I 
am easy-tempered and gentle. You will let me 
live the serious simple life I love, and I will 
tell you all I think and all I feel. We shall have 
our friends too — refined and elect spirits — who 
will beautify our life." 

They chose a small apartment near the Val-de- 
Grace, with windows looking over the garden 
of the Carmelite Nuns. There was room for 
them and their books ; place for M. Berthelot to 
sit and discuss with them all things under the 
sun ; a seat for such of Ernest Renan's masters as 
would honour his home. Henriette had few friends 
and did not desire to enlarge her acquaintance. 
She had Ernest and that was enough. 

Ernest was absent a part of every day at 
the National Library : he had been appointed 
to a small charge of Sub-Librarian. His salary, 



102 LIFE OF ERNEST REN AN 



with Henrietta's savings, sufficed for their 
daily wants. While her brother was away the 
devoted sister copied out his manuscripts for 
him, made long abstracts from volumes needed 
for his work, corrected his proofs, took notes 
which might be of use to him, compulsed a 
mass of documents, verified dates and authorities. 
For amusement she looked out of the window 
at the nuns in their convent garden, or waited 
for Ernests return. . . . Anxious pleasure of 
waiting, of listening for a glad step on the stair — 
and then the smile we expected, and the eager 
budget of the day's events ! 

In the evening, Ernest settled to his writing. 
" She had the greatest respect for my work. I 
have seen her sit by my side for hours of an 
evening, scarcely breathing lest she should in- 
terrupt my labours. Yet she loved to have 
me in her sight, and the door between our two 
rooms stood ever open. Her affection had be- 
come something so ripe and so discreet that the 
sweet communion of our thoughts was sufficient 
for her. Her heart, — jealous, exacting, as it was 
— demanded but a few minutes a day, since 
she alone was loved. Thanks to her strict 
economy, on our singularly limited resources 
she kept a house in which nothing was lacking 
and which could boast its own austere charm. . . . 



THE VALE OF GRACE 103 

She was an incomparable secretary. Her delicate 
censure discovered negligences and brusqueries 
which I had overlooked. It was she who per- 
suaded me that every shade of thought can be 
expressed in a correct and simple style, that 
violent images and new-coined expressions betray 
either misplaced pretensions or ignorance of the 
real wealth at our disposal Hence a profound 
change in the manner of my writing. I ac- 
customed myself to reckon in advance on her 
remarks — hazarding many a brilliant passage to 
watch its effect upon her, whilst decided to 
sacrifice it if she observed it with disfavour." 1 

Henriette examined not only the manner but 
the matter. Her simple rectitude was discon- 
certed by Ernest's recurrent irony. " I had never 
suffered, and a discreet smile provoked by the 
weakness or the vanity of man, seemed a sort 
of philosophy." Many a winged shaft was offered 
on her shrine. 

Fine writing, irony, and a certain abstract 
vagueness in spiritual matters ; such were the 
qualities which Henriette was anxious to dis- 
cipline and chasten in her gifted brother's writ- 
ings. The tender inquisitress was not satisfied 
until all was pure, exact, discreet, and true. 
She said to her brother, " Be thou perfect ! " 

1 Ma sceur Henriette, p. 36. 



104 LIFE OF ERNEST REN AN 



And a dash of mockery, a trace of vanity, the 
least little air of disdain, or flaunt of self- 
satisfaction, however pretty in itself, was a flaw 
in the absolute clear beauty she desired. Most 
of all, she sought to cultivate in him the habit 
of veracity, a habit the seminary had not in- 
culcated, it appears. " I have never told a lie 
since 1 8 5 1 ," wrote Ernest many years after her 
death. 

Her efforts were seconded by Ernest's friends 
— by Augustin Thierry, who in 1 8 5 1 introduced 
the young writer to the Revue des Deux Mondes ; 
by M. de Sacy, who admitted him on to the staff 
of the Debats. " It was these two organs," said 
M. Renan in 1890, "who taught me how to 
write, that is to say, how to limit myself, how 
constantly to rub the angles off my ideas, how 
to keep a watchful eye on my defects." 1 The 
extraordinary absence of vanity which character- 
ised Renan in his youth enabled him to profit by 
all this good advice without any juvenile soreness 
of feeling. He was right. Between the Avenir 
de la Science, written in 1848 and 1849, and 
the essays contributed to the Revue des Deux 
Mondes and the Debuts, in the years immediately 
following 1 8 5 1 , there is fixed the abyss which 
divides work of fervent and interesting promise 

1 Preface to Avenir. 



THE VALE OF GRACE 105 



from the peculiar ripe perfection of a great writer. 
Renan's genius was to grow freer and fuller, at once 
more human and more fantastic, more audacious 
and more penetrating. Henceforth it will lose 
rather than gain in moral grace, in a certain 
exquisite gravity and elegance of spirit. And, 
perhaps, never again was the historian of religions 
so religious. 

In Renan's delicate philosophy, made up of 
semi-tones and demi-tints, piety had out-lived 
faith. In 1856, he no longer believes in any 
of the myriad forms of the one informing soul. 
(?ro>.Xa bvo^ara Mop<pq fifa.) But that essential idea of 
Religion, peculiar and necessary to human kind, he 
asserts to be immortal and destined to an infinite 
development. Shall the exquisite herald-angel 
remain chained, trammelled, wounded, dwarfed 
perchance, by fetters of our mortal forging ? To 
strike off those fetters, thought Renan, was good 
knight's service. Set Religion free, let her move 
and grow, let her guide us unenslaved, unim- 
prisoned. The refusal to adhere to a definite 
form of worship may be an act of faith in the 
future of Religion. 

Thanks to Ernest's genius and Henriettas 
incessant vigilance, nothing in these early essays 
suggested the beginner, nor even the young man. 
They were rounded with a golden maturity. 



io6 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



The intrepidity of their conception was veiled 
by a becoming reserve of phrase : the oracle 
evidently wished to awake but not to startle 
his audience. They combine a soaring liberty of 
spirit with an exquisite candour. A great charm 
in these essays is that, so various in their subjects 
and their treatment, they are still invariable in 
their aim. United they form not an anthology, 
but a book. There is a link between them all — 
whether they treat of the historians of Jesus, the 
imitation of Christ, the lives of the Saints, or of 
Calvin, or Mahomet, or the Prophets of Israel, 
or of antique myths, or of the school of Hegel, 
or whether they delicately flagellate the vulgarities 
of American Protestantism. The author studies 
one by one these religious ideals, not dogmatically, 
but historically ; he penetrates each movement, and 
tries to resume it in a typical figure, a sort of ideal 
representative ; and this man he then evokes in 
his habit as he lived, with every detail of his most 
intimate originality. The portrait is singularly 
living, whether or no it be singularly like. . . . On 
this latter head I would reserve my opinion, omin- 
ously enlightened by a passage in one of Renan's 
letters to M. TAbb6 Cognat. . . . 

" God forgive me for loving Ronge and Czersky 
if they be misleading spirits ! For what I love 
in them — as in all other men to whom I dedicate 



THE VALE OF GRACE 107 



my enthusiasm — is a certain beautiful moral 
image of them which I create within myself. 
It is my own ideal which I love in them. Now, 
as to whether they really resemble this image? 
That appears to me, I admit, a matter of slight 
importance." 

Imaginative, suggestive, subtle, Renan's essays 
as they appeared one by one in the early years 
of the Fifties, attracted more attention than the 
brother and sister dreamed of in their dear 
seclusion. 

" What was my surprise when, one morning, 
a stranger of pleasant and intelligent appearance 
entered my attic. He complimented me on 
certain articles of mine which had appeared in 
the Reviews, and offered to unite them in a 
volume. Thereupon he produced a stamped 
document stipulating terms which I thought 
astonishingly generous, so much so that when he 
asked if all my future works should be comprised 
in the treaty, I consented." 1 The visitor was M. 
Michel L£vy, the then rising publisher, whose 
fortune Renan was to help to make ; and the 
book, the delicious Etudes d'Histoire Religieuse 
immediately established him in the first rank of 
literature, if not of popular success. Published on 
the 20th of March 1857, the Etudes d'Histoire 

a Souvenirs, 385. 



io8 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



Religieuse were succeeded on the 6th of June 
I 8S9, by the Essais de Morale et de Critique. 
Nor did Renan neglect the austerer courts of 
Science. In 1855 he had finally given to 
the world the General History of Semitic 
Languages, which, while still unpublished, had 
won the Volney Prize some eight years before. 
This book opened to the author the gates of the 
Institute. Uncontested master of Semitic philo- 
logy in France, Renan was elected, in 1856, a 
Member of the Academy of Inscriptions and 
Belles Lettres. 

Meanwhile, in 1852, Renan had published the 
work on Averroes, which brought him not only 
his doctor's degree, but his first reputation as a 
thinker. In Averroes the critic demonstrates 
the sterilising effect of orthodoxy on a noble and 
beautiful philosophy. Greek science, adopted by 
the Arab thinkers, fixed and crystallised by them 
into a dogma, becomes thenceforth a thing in- 
capable of development or fecundity. To live 
and grow, a thing must pass from the category 
of esse into the category of fieri. Otherwise 
routine and dogmatism rust out the vital principle 
in even the greatest ideas ; even as a pool of the 
purest water, set apart from the natural current of 
streams or the running rains of heaven, will 
stale and grow stagnant. 



THE VALE OF GRACE 



The interest of philosophic history lies rather 
in the picture it gives us of the growth of the 
human mind, than in the theories which it 
exhumes from bygone systems. The strange 
development of Greek science by a civilisation 
entirely alien to that of Greece interested the 
historic curiosity of Renan. Aristotle among 
the Arabs ! So we might imagine Pekin to adopt 
the theories of Darwin and Pasteur, commentat- 
ing them during centuries in a spirit of pure 
Chinese orthodoxy. The result would probably be 
of no mortal value — it would be piquant and un- 
usual ; it would represent an infrequent combina- 
tion ; it would have a value of its own in the 
eyes of the disinterested critic of the universe, 
curious of moral rarities. It would be interest- 
ing and useful to see in what unlikely back-waters 
the Stream of Life can meander when the main 
current is blocked. . . . The Arabs took the 
philosophy of Aristotle from the Syrian Chris- 
tians, who had it from the pagan Greeks. The 
Mahommedan Arabs bequeathed it to the Spanish 
Jews, who passed it on to the Catholic doctors 
of the Middle Ages and Aristotle ended as a 
scholastic dogmatist in the Sorbonne ! Trans- 
lated, interpreted, and falsified in a dozen different 
senses, the intellectual curiosity of Greece con- 
trived in these strange elements, if not to grow, 



no LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



if not to produce, at least to languish in a sort 
of earthly limbo. Die Wahrheit magt Niemand 
verbrennen, sang Mechtild of Magdeburg, who, 
in her different degree, was another child of 
Aristotle. 

But not merely the curiosity of the man of 
science attracted Renan to this subject. The 
strongest bent of his genius inclined him to 
consider, above all, the origins of things. He 
loved the delicate, rooty fibres as others love 
the flowers or the fruits ; and half of his secret 
was his extraordinary faculty for seeing under- 
ground. The scholastic philosophy of the 
thirteenth century is only to be understood by 
a thorough knowledge of the principles of Jewish 
and Arab thought. When Renan did not under- 
stand a phenomenon, an imperious instinct bade 
him seek its source. His interpretation of 
Catholic scholasticism led him first of all to study 
Averroes, even as later on it led him to study the 
Early Church, and thence the Origins of Chris- 
tianity, whence he delved yet further back into 
the Origins of Judaism. Averroes is the first 
link in a chain which Renan was to spend his 
life in forging. 



CHAPTER IV 



THE MORAL PHILOSOPHER 

IF we hold with Averroes that all men are the 
transient expressions of one enduring soul, 
we find small difficulty in explaining how the 
noblest minds of a given generation arrive, 
unknown to each other, and simultaneously, at 
a like result While Renan was painfully de- 
ducing from documents and inflections a new 
psychology, a young classical master at Nevers, 
named Hippolyte Taine, was writing to his 
friends : — 

" Free psychology is a magnificent science 
founded on the philosophy of history ... we 
must make of history an exact science. ... I 
take refuge from the present in reading the 
Germans." 1 

Taine met Renan, five years his senior, in the 
offices of the great Liberal reviews. Save in the 
fundamental independence and unworldliness of 
their natures, no men could be more different. 

1 See, in M. Gabriel Monod's charming and valuable volume 
Rencm, Taine \ Michelet y the previously unpublished letters of Taine. 

hi 



H2 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



The genius of Taine was absolute, positive, vivid 
to the verge of harshness, apt to mass and class 
the confusion of things in a series of brilliant 
syntheses : above all things he was a logician. 
Renan, — subtle, complex and elusive, a historian 
and, above all, an analyst, — was for ever dividing 
and sub-dividing the prism of the universe into 
an immeasurable sequence of minor shades ; was 
for ever attenuating his keen and often auda- 
cious analysis by a style serene and limpid 
beyond comparison. But a like idea of Truth 
and Liberty animated their souls. Equally 
admirable, equally eminent, Renan and Taine 
were as the two eyes of the generation which 
came to its maturity towards i860. 

The children of a later day can form no idea 
of the repression which followed '48, of those 
gloomy years in which thought was fettered, 
freedom stifled, in which a political and orthodox 
inquisition controlled the university and the press 
of a liberal nation. The fusillades of the Luxem- 
bourg were less detestable than the intellectual 
tyranny of the Empire of the Fifties. A govern- 
ment in reaction against armed insurrection 
has some excuse for excessive reprisals ; it may 
be right in maintaining order even by a flagrant 
retaliation ; but it is an error to believe that the 
premeditated dwarfing of a nation's intelligence 



THE MORAL PHILOSOPHER 113 



can ever be the guarantee of peace. Adversity, 
however, steels the obstinate; the Liberal party con- 
tinued its opposition, aware that no ministry, how- 
ever tyrannous, can destroy the mind of a nation. 
When the main channel is blocked, intelligence 
finds new outlets. The university, the public 
schools, letters, the press, were constrained by an 
iron censure, subject to exile, prison, suspension, 
daily fines. Yet journalism had never been 
more brilliant than under the Second Empire. 
Beule contrived to outrage the Government 
with impunity in writing the history of Augustus. 
Rogeard bewailed the illiberal " Liberty of 
December " — libertas Decembris, as Horace 
puts it — and the censor dared not seize the 
allusion to the coup d'etat. 

France, in the Fifties, had at least one religion 
which was not a mere lip-service, and that was 
the doctrine of Liberalism. The little office of 
the Debats y with its red-tiled floor, and its two 
shabby ink-stained tables, was a sort of temple 
of the faith. There statesmen, financiers, scholars, 
artists, men of letters, met on a footing of ease 
and equality, the result of their sincere devotion 
to an aim outside themselves which made rank, 
fortune, influence, details of no importance. MM. de 
Sacy, Laboulaye, Prevost Paradol, John Lemoinne, 
the Bertins, were the priests of this austere Chapel ; 

H 



H4 



LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



and its creed was freedom, the rights of citizens, 
justice, and a ceaseless aspiration towards a 
nobler order of things. " Liberalism," wrote 
Renan more than once, " Liberalism represents 
for me the formula of the highest human develop- 
ment ; " and the doctrine of the Debats was, in 
fact, at bottom, much the doctrine of the Hebrew 
prophets. The task of preaching it was attended 
by almost insurmountable difficulties. The censor 
was swift to punish and to suppress any indepen- 
dent expression of political opinion. So the lead- 
ing articles in the first columns were models of 
discretion. The life of the journal passed into the 
" Varieties " — into studies on moral and social 
questions or purely literary articles, and the in- 
telligent reader turned to the third page where he 
read, between the lines of an essay or a review, all 
that the political editor was obliged to leave un- 
said. A notice by Provost Paradol, a piece of 
Roman History by Cuvillier-Fleury, an article by 
Ernest Renan were sure, in their subtle opposi- 
tion, of an attentive public. 

It was easy for a philosopher to serve the 
Opposition simply by upholding the banner of 
an austere Ideal. The staff of the Debats, 
like the staff of the Edinburgh Review, was 
content to " cultivate Literature upon a little 
oatmeal." The traditions of the place were 



THE MORAL PHILOSOPHER 115 



all of a certain Jansenist severity. Luxury, 
display, — objects of elaborate mechanical con- 
struction, even, — were suspect in the eyes of 
the Debats. To own more than a million or 
so (of francs bien entendu) appeared in very poor 
taste. The immense expenses of the Empire, 
the impetus given to industry, the heightened 
standard of universal comfort, were signs of the 
times regarded as distinctly ominous by these 
eulogists of days gone by. They spoke of the 
improvements of the Baron Haussmann with a 
dash of contempt in a great deal of disfavour. 
" I would give all your steamboats for an ^neid," 
exclaimed M. de Sacy. The Government was 
as generous in public works as it was illiberal in 
public instruction. Vast sums were spent on 
the extension of railways, the establishment of 
the telegraph, on industrial exhibitions, on the 
organisation of savings banks. " There was 
some good in the Empire after all ! " cry we of 
a later date, as we read the formidable list of 
Imperial improvements. " No good ! " cried the 
stern young prophet of the Dtbats. " What 
material progress can compensate a moral de- 
cadence? Will a steam traction engine make a 
man happy? Will a universal exhibition make 
him nobler or better? In taking the triumphs 
of mechanical ingenuity for the sign of an ad- 



n6 LIFE OF ERNEST REN AN 



vanced civilisation, you mistake the mere accident 
for the essential." So taught Renan in France 
throughout the Fifties ; while, curiously enough, 
in England, John Ruskin was fulminating a similar 
gospel against the gross, the palpable, ideal of 
the age. 

Renan discredited the advantages of tyranny, 
and showed how despotism, to make itself accept- 
able, invariably persuades Society of its talents as 
a steward : "Bow down before me, and I will give 
ye cent for cent." But what shall it profit a man 
if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul ? 
Nothing is less important than prosperity. Man 
is not born to be prosperous, but to realise, in a 
little vanguard of chosen spirits, an ideal superior 
to the ideal of yesterday. The bulk of humanity 
lives by proxy ; only the few can attain a com- 
plete development. Millions live and die in order 
to produce a rare elite. The true glory of 
Holland, for instance, is to have brought forth 
princes like William of Orange, painters like 
Rembrandt, thinkers like Spinoza — not to have 
the best pastures in Europe and a high standard 
of comfort. Once we put the accent on prosperity, 
we introduce into our midst envy, ambition, and 
all their baleful sequel. The really noble society 
is that in which each man is content with the 
station into which he is born. The really noble 



THE MORAL PHILOSOPHER 117 



nation is that which yields the greatest sum of 
disinterestedness, of self-sacrifice, that in which 
men most live for one another : the society whose 
workmen are proud of the magnificence of their 
prince, whose princes are solicitous for the needs 
of the poor, whose laymen are sustained by the 
prayers of the nun, whose priests rejoice in the 
courage of the soldier, whose scholars profit by 
the labours of the humble, whose harvesters feel 
that, in their sphere, they too collaborate in the 
great moral masterpiece which is a nation firmly 
welded in an indestructible solidarity of soul. 
Duty is the foundation of such a society, and the 
satisfaction in duty accomplished the private joy 
of every citizen — a joy deeper than any man can 
owe to the mere diffusion of material abundance. 

So runs the epistle of Renan to his contempor- 
aries. In consequence of the storm raised by his 
essay on the historians of Jesus, published in the 
Etudes d'Histoire Religieuse^ he had turned for a 
while from his chosen path of religious history 
to the neighbouring track of moral philosophy. 
The frivolity of the society of his age made him 
pause in the destruction of an illusion which was, 
perhaps, a restraint and an ideal. The morality 
of the average man is in fact generally a con- 
sequence of his piety ; let us therefore respect 
that piety. Let us direct it. Whether or no 



n8 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 

Christianity be true, this philosopher was persuaded 
of the existence of good and evil. 

" An impenetrable veil screens from us the 
secret of this strange world whose reality con- 
vinces and oppresses us. Philosophy and Science 
pursue for ever, and ever in vain, the formula of 
this proteus whom no reason limits and no tongue 
expresses. But there is one indubitable founda- 
tion, which scepticism shall not shake, where man 
may find, until the end of time, a foothold firm 
amid the uncertainties around him : Good is good, 
evil is evil." 

Good is good, evil is evil, and, above all things, 
truth is truth : — " Whatever system we adopt to 
explain man and the world, we cannot deny that 
the problems they arouse are infinitely curious, 
infinitely attaching, and worthy of the most patient 
investigation. And even if virtue were but a 
snare, laid for the noblest, if hope were a dream, 
beauty an illusion, humanity a vain tumult, the 
pure research of truth would still preserve its 
charm ! For even if we suppose the world to be 
the nightmare of a fevered divinity, or an acciden- 
tal bubble on the surface of nothingness, yet are 
we invincibly impelled to wring its secret from it. 
Whatever we may think of the universe, it remains 
a spectacle which rivets our attention. In the 
life of St Thomas Aquinas we read that one 



THE MORAL PHILOSOPHER 119 



day Christ appeared to him and asked him 
what reward he craved for his learned writings. 
* Nothing but Thee, O Lord ! ' replied the angeli- 
cal doctor. The critic of the universe is yet more 
disinterested. If Truth should appear and address 
him a like question, he would answer — ' Nought 
but the pursuit of thee, O Truth ! ' " 1 

1 Essais de Morale et de Critique p. 100. 



CHAPTER V 



MARRIAGE 

A PORTRAIT by Henry Scheffer — the less 
known brother of a famous painter — shows 
us Renan at this time. The head is certainly 
idealized, but its likeness to the sitter's charming 
daughter forbids us to call it a piece of flattery 
pure and simple. It shows a Renan strikingly 
unlike the gnome-like figure, the colossal leonine 
head, the radiant ugliness of the affable Acade- 
mician we remember. Neither the strength, nor 
the humour, nor the disenchanted benignant smile 
we knew are here. This is a serious elegiac 
young man, a Hamlet, — nay, too gentle and un- 
suspicious for a Hamlet, — almost a Good Shep- 
herd. The cheeks and jaw have not yet taken on 
those formidable proportions which made the sin- 
uous lips appear yet more delicate. All the features 
are larger, the heavy nose, the mouth, especially 
the eyes — charming, in this portrait, in their 
smiling melancholy. The oval of the face ap- 
pears not only slighter but longer. The ensemble 
1 20 



MARRIAGE 



121 



is striking, touching, even handsome. The 
relentless idealism of the painter has attenuated 
the quaint awkwardness of the model, whose 
small stature, heavy sloping shoulders, huge head, 
and short arms can never have presented this dis- 
tinguished appearance. Renan was well aware of 
his deficiencies. Many a line in his earlier essays 
informs us of his bashfulness in society. His 
priest's education and the long habit of solitude 
had left him awkward, silent, reserved. He could 
discourse brilliantly on elevated subjects, but he 
did not know how, at the right moment, to say 
the usual thing. He was always utterly devoid of 
the give-and-take of the ready talker. Thus he 
oscillated between an inspired monologue and a 
heavy silence, while he wondered how intelligent 
persons could be so fired by the common-place, 
" so interested in what does not ennoble." He 
felt painfully his uncouth exterior, and perhaps 
still more painfully, though with a certain pride, 
that mark of the priest on his forehead, which, 
as he thought, was clearly legible, destining him 
to eternal solitude in the pursuit of the ideal. Sir 
M. Grant Duff, who met him first in 1859, gives us 
a more flattered version of the same character : — 
" His manner had that charming gentleness 
which is characteristic of the best of the Catholic 
clergy. His conversation was very copious and 



122 LIFE OF ERNEST REN AN 



limpid, not dealing much in epigram or anecdote, 
but very easy and very informing." 

It was towards 1855, I think, that Renan 
made the acquaintance of Ary Scheffer. The 
pure idealism of the Dutch painter's art, the 
liberality of his religious feeling, the generous 
and lofty temper of his mind, were such as to 
fire the young savants enthusiasm. By his new 
friend's hearth, he found that household warmth, 
that simple and yet intellectual geniality which 
were all that was needed to thaw his chill timidi- 
ties. M. Schefifer's house had not been the home 
it became to Ernest Renan were there no women 
by the hearth. He had a niece and a daughter. 
Some thirty-five years later I was privileged to 
count the former among my dearest friends. 

When I knew her Madame Renan was an 
ageing woman, her figure grown to a great size, 
the shape of her face something altered by the 
habit of difficult breathing : she had a heart com- 
plaint. But, at sixty, her bright blue eyes, with 
their look of witty innocence, her clear skin, her 
abundant chestnut hair, her delightful smile with 
its winning unassailable youth, sufficed to remind 
us of the attractions of her girlhood. Her early 
portraits show a slim light grace, a pure oval of 
cheek and brow, with the same air of merry good- 
ness which made her face so charming in age. 



MARRIAGE 



123 



As clever as she was pretty, as kind as she was 
wise, the friends of her girlhood used to call her 
Minerva ; but imagine the most modest, the most 
amiable fireside divinity, prescient for others, wise 
with no thought of her own advancement. Lively, 
gay, active, sweet-tempered, capable, discreet, — 
Corn^lie Schefifer was the ideal helpmate. Really 
gifted, she soon discovered the intellectual superi- 
ority of her uncle's friend. Imagine his delight 
to find this charming maiden, not only acquainted, 
but deeply imbued, with his own writings, and 
able to talk with him not merely as an admirer, 
but as an intelligent companion. Little by little 
her influence on her new friend became only 
second to that of Henriette, and inclined him 
ever more and more to the standpoint of the 
artist, of the man of feeling, as opposed to the 
pure scholar's point of view. I suppose M. Ary 
Scheffer saw how things were drifting. Often 
Madame Renan has told me of a ride she took 
with her uncle on the sands near Scheveningen — 
I suppose in the autumn of 1855. They were 
talking of the future — of other people's future. 
Suddenly he wheeled round his horse, confronted 
her, and said — "You, my dear, you ought to 
marry the most intelligent man I know." Neither 
said any more ; they broke into a gallop, and 
continued their thoughts in silence. 



124 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



But Mademoiselle Renan, in her dear seclusion, 
laid no great stress on this intimacy with the 
Scheffers, Long before she had proposed to 
Ernest what she had considered a suitable al- 
liance. He had refused ; the years glided on ; 
and the tender, jealous sister, so happy in her 
double solitude, had come to count upon her 
brother as exclusively her own for ever. He, 
on the other hand, relied on her sympathy for 
a confession which his reserve continually put off. 
And one day he awoke to find himself condemned 
to break the heart of one of the two women he 
loved best in all the world. 

In pages of a penetrating beauty, Ernest Renan 
himself has told the heart-wrung modest tragedy. 
Who shall repeat the words which a sacred 
emotion has let escape from the lips of a master ? 
Henriette Renan could not, would not, at first 
accept the bitter cup. And one day her brother, 
forced to choose between two affections, decided 
for that which seemed most like a duty. He 
bade farewell, an eternal farewell, to the young 
girl he loved. At night-fall, he went home ; en- 
tered quietly the little study, henceforth desolate, 
and told his sister of his sacrifice. Thus set • 
face to face with a generosity superior to her 
own, all that was noble, all that was the infallible 
protectress, revived in Henriette and forbade the 



MARRIAGE 



125 



sacrifice. The next morning early she went to 
M. Scheffer's house ; asked for her young rival, 
sought and found her peace. The two women 
wept long in each other's arms ; but they bid 
each other au revoir I with glad faces. In those 
hours of shaken tears their sisterhood had begun. 

But not yet, if ever, was the demon of tender 
jealousy allayed. The first years of Madame 
Renan's married life were filled with a difficult and 
tormented happiness. The young wife, brought 
up with all the triple liberty of a cosmopolitan, 
Protestant, and artistic home, must often have felt 
the provincial reclusion of the Renans' house 
weigh upon her spirits. For she was not mistress 
there. The Minerva of Ary Scheffer's studio never 
complained of the subordinate position allotted 
her by her own conventual hearth. Her hus- 
band, accustomed all his life long to look up to 
Henriette and obey her, thought it quite natural 
that his young wife should obey her too. And 
the exquisite, the devoted, the noble Henriette 
was sometimes a jealous divinity. 

The birth of a son lit a warmer glow at their 
fireside. Henriette adored her nephew, and this 
great new interest reconciled her to her brother's 
marriage. Melancholy, tearful, anxious, she re- 
mained ; ever susceptible, easily wounded ; but a 
real affection for Ary's mother knit her at last 



126 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



to her sister-in-law. In i860 they were still 
closer drawn together by the loss of a little girl, 
Ernestine, passionately beloved by her father, who 
consecrated to this baby soul an exquisite In 
Memoriam\ still unpublished. — Little Ernestine, 
who lived nine months, was never forgotten ; — 
often has Madame Renan recalled to me a loss 
still recent to her faithful love ; and Henriette 
Renan in her last illness spoke many a time to 
Ernest of their " little flower." — Meanwhile old 
Madame Renan had joined the family circle. 
The witty, voluble little old woman had much 
more in common with her daughter - in - law 
than with her daughter. At heart, she had 
never forgiven Henriette her plain face ; and 
she, at least, knew the value of youth, charm, 
beauty, and vivacity in a woman. Her presence 
made things go smoothly. Her son adored her, 
admired her, no less than in the old days at 
Treguier. Every afternoon at dusk he was wont 
to spend an hour in her room, lit only by the 
gas lamps in the street. And she would dis- 
course to him of Treguier and Lannion as they 
were before the Revolution, of her own early 
youth, and of a vanished Brittany. More than 
twenty years later, these talks in the twilight 
were to receive an immortal setting in Renan's 
Souvenirs d'Enfance et de Jeunesse. 



MARRIAGE 



127 



In 1858 Ary Scheffer died, and Renan lost 
in him not only a near related friend but a 
collaborator. Ary Scheffer's last design had been 
made to illustrate his nephew-in-law's translation 
of the Book of Job. The volume appeared, 
without the promised illustrations, in 1859. And 
thus Renan began his version of the Bible, 
choosing by a sort of instinct the great hymn 
of doubt and despair, the terrible dialogue of an 
irresponsible God who mocks at justice, and of a 
baffled and ignorant humanity. In the following 
year he brought forth his second book — " The 
Song of Songs," the triumphant paean of Profane 
Love. More than twenty years later, he was to 
give us EcclesiasteS) the last word of scepticism, 
the last ironical smile-and-sigh of the pessimist 
convinced that man shall never triumph over fate. 
Strange scriptures these. In the Bible, according 
to Ernest Renan, there is neither a prayer nor 
a psalm. Renan's translation of The Song of 
Songs is a masterpiece of ingenious scholar- 
ship, and one may say that only those who 
have read this charming version can appreciate 
all the beauty, freshness, and candour of the 
exquisite little Hebrew morality-play. 

In 1857 Quatremere had died, and since 
then there was a Chair vacant at the College 
of France — the Chair of Hebrew and Syro- 



128 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



Chaldaic languages — the place which Renan 
had desired consistently, and to which every 
succeeding volume showed his title clearer. 

The Professors of the College of France are 
named by the Minister of Public Instruction from 
two lists, the one drawn up by the College itself, 
the other by the Academy of Inscriptions. 
These lists are almost always identical. Cer- 
tainly the name of Ernest Renan would have 
headed either. But month after month, year after 
year, dragged on ; the Chair of Hebrew remained 
vacant ; the Minister never asked for the lists. 
The Professorship of Hebrew at the College of 
France is, in point of fact, a Chair of Biblical 
exegesis. The Catholic party, all-powerful in the 
first years of the Spanish Empress's influence, had 
devised this means of reducing a renegade to 
silence. Renan waited, and continued his duties 
as one of the sub-librarians at the Biblioth&que 
Imperiale. He knew his time would come. When, 
in 1 86 1, overtures were made to him, to discover 
if he would accept another Chair at the College 
of France, he replied, No. He meant yet to fill 
the seat of Quatremere. 



CHAPTER VI 



A MISSION TO PHOENICIA 

"TV 7T EANWHILE the Empire prospered and 
became mellower in its prosperity. The 
laurels of the Crimea hid, in some measure, the 
blood stains of the Deux-Decembre. Men began 
to speak well of a Government which secured a 
triumph abroad and magnificence at home. 
When Napoleon III. declared war against Austria 
in favour of Italian independence, the usurper 
appeared the champion of liberty, and the 
popular enthusiasm knew no bounds. And, in 
fact, at heart, Louis -Napoleon, curious of all 
things, convinced of none, inclined as much to 
democracy as to any other popular idol. Like 
one of those late Roman Emperors, in whose 
private oratory there was a place for Isis and 
a place for Abraham, his eclectic mind gave 
a fragmentary worship to the idea of Freedom. 
Personally, he was liberal in his views, though a 
wave of conservative opinion had brought him to 
the throne. But while he began to disassociate 
his influence from the tyranny of his Ministers, 

T 129 



130 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



he kept them in power. He attempted to realise 
democratic projects by the aid of the repressers 
of '48. He and his Government pulled in 
different directions — the tension reassured him : 
in that way he was sure of not going too far. 

On the 15th August 1859, the Emperor pro- 
claimed a general amnesty for all political offences. 
Of the six thousand exiles of December, many 
refused the Emperor's pardon. 

" Si l'on n'est plus que mille, eh bien ! j'en suis. Si meme 
lis ne sont plus que cent, je brave encor Sylla ! 
S'il en demeure dix, je serai le dixieme 
Et s'il n'en reste qu'un, je serai celui-la ! " 

So sang Victor Hugo, and many took up the 
echo. Others were dead in banishment, but 
many returned. Nothing succeeds like success, 
as we all know, and the empire appeared a great 
success. One after the other, great names began 
to slip from the ranks of the Liberals and to 
appear on the horizon of the Court. Soon genius 
became a frequent guest at Compiegne. The 
Emperor's marriage had drawn Merimee into 
his circle ; Sainte-Beuve, Nisard, Gautier, Emile 
Augier followed suit. And the Empire, in 
admitting these great men, was modified by 
their influence, became eager to patronise art 
and letters, to further the pursuits of Science. 
The Emperor himself was a sort of a scholar, 



A MISSION TO PHCENICIA 131 



a kind of an author, a hanger-on of Clio. 
Hesitatingly, doubtfully, though he still clung 
to his guides of yesterday, he began to 
follow, with one step back for every two steps 
forward, the brilliant phalanx that showed a 
better way. 

Curious, indulgent, Renan watched this new 
departure with a sort of benign amusement, but 
made no advances. He, at least, never changed 
his political position. Liberal in 1848, Liberal 
in 1851, he was no less Liberal in i860, when 
Liberalism had become a sort of fashion. Yet, 
when in the month of May i860, the Emperor 
made a feeble advance to the man he had injured, 
offered to send him on an archaeological mission 
to Phoenicia, Renan immediately accepted. Some 
of his old friends wondered. " The feud between 
the Government and the intellect of France 
was then so bitter that many persons of great 
merit would not have accepted even a scientific 
mission at its hands ; " so Sir M. Grant Duff 
has well observed. Renan had no such scruple. 
Henriette, moreover, urged him to undertake an 
expedition which implied no political adherence 
to the Government, no personal advancement, — 
which took him from what still remained the 
scene of his ambitions, merely to further the 
gain of Science. And it was arranged that she 



132 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



should accompany him as secretary, as accountant, 
as steward of his resources. 

The arrangements for their departure were 
not yet completed when the Druses fell on the 
Christians of Mount Lebanon, and massacred 
them in a Holy War. The Second Empire, how- 
ever illiberal at home, was more than generous 
in its foreign policy. Napoleon immediately 
decided to protect the unfortunate Maronites. 
The vessel which carried M. Renan and his sister 
to Beyrouth was one of those which transported 
a French division to Syria. Renan, in his candid 
absorption in the ends of Science, appears to have 
accepted the whole affair — massacres, Turkish 
incapacity, French army partant pour la Syrte, 
&c, — as providentially combined in the interests 
of archaeology : " The presence of our soldiers 
on the spot was a most favourable element in 
my design. Thereby my excavations were 
singularly simplified — they were made by the 
soldiers. Thus my mission to Phoenicia took 
that place in the Syrian Expedition, which the 
French army, in its noble preoccupation with 
the things of the mind, has ever loved to accord 
to Science in her more distant ventures." 1 

The blood of the Maronites was scarcely dry 
on the sand when the Renans reached the Syrian 

1 Mission de Phinicie, I^ re Livraison, p. 2. 



A MISSION TO PHCENICIA 133 



shore. Thus they saw the East at once in the 
squalor and horror of Moslem misrule, and in 
all the glory of its past. They landed at Bey- 
routh, and at once began their excavations at 
Byblos. Ancient Phoenicia, as the reader may 
remember, comprised that strip of Syrian coast 
— some thirty miles wide at largest, but nearly 
thrice as long — which runs between the Mediter- 
ranean shore and the range of Lebanon. There 
stand Azad and Marath, Tyre and Sidon, the 
Byblos of Adonis — memorable names ! Ports, 
whence the Canaanitish traders put forth to carry 
cedarwood to Solomon, and purple from Tyre, 
and, from Sidon, the famous wares of Artas the 
glassmaker ; ports whence they sped to Greece, 
Spain, Africa, Italy, founding Carthage, founding 
Cadiz, building harbours and stations until they 
made the Mediterranean a mere Phoenician lake. 
In their boats, with their bales, these hardy 
traders carried knowledge : but for their alphabet, 
where were all our science? But in art these 
English of the East were less happy. Colossal, 
irregular, impressive, their strange dome of Amrit, 
guarded by its lions, is almost their only master- 
piece. For the best part, their monuments are 
a half-barbaric reminiscence of Egypt or of 
Greece, coarsely wrought, overloaded by plaques 
of metal ornament. 



134 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



If the sarcophagi which the Renans unearthed 
at Byblos, showed no happy marvel of design — if 
they were but honourable examples of provincial 
art roughly executed in the best materials, — at 
least they afforded a singular pleasure to their 
excavators. Brother and sister had never dreamed 
of a life so free. Here they sat, on this beautiful 
border of the Holy Land, commanding their little 
camp, discovering the secret of antiquity. Care 
and poverty had dogged their youth : for Ernest 
the dull hours of the usher, or the dusty fatigues 
of the sub-librarian ; for Henriette, exile and 
dependence amid plain after plain of sand and 
snow, endless forests of foreign pines. And now, 
united, the great cities of Phoenicia lay at their 
feet, and over the last blue mountain rim, Pales- 
tine ! A new energy, a light of youth, animated 
them both. Henriette, the recluse of the Val-de- 
Grace, would spend ten hours at a stretch on 
horseback, nor speak of fatigue. 

The autumn in Syria is long and full of charm. 
All the rocks of the gorges of Lebanon are 
wreathed with cyclamen. The plains towards 
Amrit are blue and red with flowers. From the 
heights of the mountains, which rise here, tier 
upon tier, in a quadruple range, the eye glances 
across chasms and forests, towards a sea more 
brilliant than the freshest blossoms. Cascades 



A MISSION TO PHOENICIA 135 



and torrents, clear as crystal, cool as ice, leap 
from their rocky sources, and dash down the sun- 
baked mountain-side, filling the hot air with the 
sparkle of their spray. A spectacle so extra- 
ordinary forced itself upon the long slow gaze of 
Renan. His unremarking eyes at last observed 
the vision of natural beauty, absorbed it, retained 
it. Syria completed the work begun by Italy : 
Renan was henceforth to be one of the subtlest, 
one of the profoundest painters of nature. Rousseau 
himself has not more exquisite tints on his palette. 
And, like Jean-Jacques, he reproduces less a land- 
scape than his own dream of a landscape floating 
in some pellucid haze of sentiment through which 
reality takes on a prestige more magical, an air 
of mystery and remoteness, peculiar less to the 
landscape than the seer. 

The climate, though beautiful, is unhealthy in 
its brusque alternances of heat and cold. Some- 
times sudden gusts of neuralgia, terrible, appalling 
to witness, would sweep over Henriette Renan, 
lay her prostrate for some hours, or some days, 
and she would rise up again with unabated 
courage and resume their hard, happy, adven- 
turous life. Seated squarely on her horse, she 
skirted the precipices of Lebanon, and never 
paled. Rough fare, the huts of the mountain 
for shelter, constant transitions from the burning 



136 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



sunshine to the sepulchral chill of the gorges in 
shadow, were but as welcome episodes in a con- 
tinual pleasure. At Tyre, the high pavilion she 
occupied was rocked by the winds. The spec- 
tacle of their little camp, lost in the desert, filled 
her at night with a religious exaltation. 

In January 1861, Madame Ernest Renan 
came out to join them. Together they set out 
in the spring for Palestine. Often at night, 
their tent set under the shadow of Mount Carmel, 
or by the deep hollow of the Lake of Galilee, 
the travellers read the series of Pilgrims' Psalms, 
which Renan was to recall a few months later 
in writing the Life of fesus. 

" For those provincial families the journey to 
Jerusalem was a solemnity full of sweetness. 
Psalm after psalm records the happiness of these 
pilgrim households travelling together in the 
spring time over hill and down dale, with the 
sacred splendour of Jerusalem at the journey's 
end. ' How happy are brethren who dwell to- 
gether in amity ! ' . . . The last stage of all, 
Ai'n-el-Harami^, is full of charm and melancholy. 
Few impressions rival that of the traveller who 
sets his camp there at nightfall. The valley 
is narrow and sombre ; a dark water drips from 
the walls of the rocks, pierced with tombs. It is, 
I think, the * Vale of Tears ' — the ( gorge of 



A MISSION TO PHOENICIA 137 



dripping waters/ which is celebrated in the ex- 
quisite 83rd Psalm as one of the stations on 
the way, and in which the tender sadness of 
mediaeval mysticism saw an image of the life of 
man. Early on the morrow the caravan will 
reach Jerusalem. Even to-day the thought re- 
animates the caravan, renders the evening short 
and the travellers' slumber light." 

Jerusalem, tragic, arid, barren, seemed then as 
the law after the Gospel, as the letter after the % 
spirit, and sharpened by contrast the souvenir of 
Galilean grace. In this harsh environment, the 
newness, the freshness, the divine originality of 
the New Testament appear more apparent still. 
Ever since his year of spiritual crisis Renan had 
pondered in his heart a Life of Jesus, unlike any 
yet written, which, while hiding nothing of the 
textual errors and apocryphs of the Gospel as 
we possess it, should set in high and clear relief 
the divine character, the exquisite inventions in 
moral sentiment of the Founder of Christianity. 
Here, in the Holy Land, that great figure never 
ceased upon his inner vision. No saint in his 
cell, no Crusader, was ever more fervently haunted 
by Christ Jesus than this unfrocked Churchman, 
this sceptical archaeologist, busied with the details 
of a scientific mission. In the desolate Galilee 
of a Moslem rule, his mind's eye noted the 



138 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



flowery Paradise described by Josephus where 
the walnut and the date palm grew together. 
On the abandoned lake, with its one ruined 
ferry-boat, he saw the sails of Andrew and 
Peter, the prosperous fishermen of old. On the 
little promontories, overgrown with tamarisk 
and oleander, he followed the trace of the 
very footsteps of the Son of Man. Far to 
the north the ravines of Mount Hermon are 
drawn in dazzling silver against the sky. The 
horizon, at least, has not altered in these two 
thousand years. 

After the month of May the heat in Syria 
becomes oppressive. Galilee, deforested, deserted, 
is now so naked that the caravan reckons over- 
night where it shall find a spot of shade for the 
mid-day meal on the morrow. The journey 
back to Beyrouth cost the travellers much 
fatigue. Mme. Ernest Renan, enceinte, re- 
turned to France in the course of July. Her 
husband and sister-in-law would have done well 
to accompany her. Almost every member of 
the mission engaged under M. Renan in the 
excavations had already fallen dangerously ill 
with pestilential malaria. And the worst heat 
of the summer was to come. But the sense of 
scientific duty, always so strong in Renan, 
which over and over again prompted him to a 



A MISSION TO PHOENICIA 139 



course of action disastrous to his interests, urged 
him to remain on the parched and feverish Syrian 
coast in order to supervise the shipping of his 
archaeological treasure, in order, also, to complete 
his exploration of the upper range of Lebanon. 
He meditated, even, an autumn excursion to 
Cyprus. Henriette happier, she declared, than 
ever she had been in her life, Henriette, satis- 
fied to find herself still indispensable to her idol, 
remained with him and braved — alas too 
courageously ! — the exhalations of a Syrian 
autumn. 

The implacable sun of Beyrouth drove the 
Renans to the hills. At Ghazir they found 
green pastures, fresh snow from the mountains, 
wholesome springs, and a little house with a 
pergola. Here, in the utmost peace conceivable 
on earth, Renan began his Life of Jesus. All 
day long he sat in the cool shadow of his Syrian 
home absorbed, intoxicated by that inner dream 
which little by little took shape and lived before 
his eyes. A New Testament, a Josephus, com- 
prised his library ; but the book of the East 
was open before him ; but the very past, familiar 
through a hundred texts and inscriptions, rose 
before him more real than the actual moment. 
Thrown full length on his Syrian rug, his books 
and papers scattered round him, he wrote hour 



HO LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



after hour in the fervour of a veritable inspiration. 
Henriette was his perpetual confidant, as soon as 
the page was written she copied it fair. When 
at last the night fell, the clear, magnificent 
Oriental night, brother and sister rose and 
sought their terrace on the house roof. There 
they would speak at last of the day's silent 
work, and she would make her reflections, often 
profound, always pregnant with that fine, moral 
tact of which she had the secret. " Many of 
them," her brother has said, " were to me as veri- 
table revelations." 

" This book," she would say, " I shall love. 
Because we have done it together. And because 
I like it ! " 

Days of earnest thought, nights of dreaming 
scarcely less fecund. When, in the first days 
of September, the Renans were compelled to 
return to Beyrouth the book was three parts 
written, and Christ on the eve of the last 
journey to Jerusalem. 

Alas ! the soul and the body have not the 
same requirements. An immense moral satis- 
faction had not preserved the health of Henriette 
Renan. The cruel neuralgia from which she 
suffered was perhaps even aggravated by so intense 
a nervous strain. Yet had the Cato started at 
the date fixed, the sea winds and the air of home 



A MISSION TO PHOENICIA 141 



might even yet have revived her. As chance 
would have it, some ill-hap delayed the ship one 
week. Made aware of this postponement, the 
Renans started for Gebeil (Byblos), in order to 
see to the shipping of two last sarcophagi, which 
they had given up as untransportable. They 
secured their spoil, and climbed the hill to find 
shade and rest at Amschit, that Syrian village, 
dear to Henriette, where they had spent together 
the first few weeks of their Eastern sojourn. 
Here, on the Tuesday, 17th September, Henriette 
fell ill with a vague sort of intermittent fever, 
accompanied by neuralgic pains. But she was 
so accustomed to neuralgia ! She had often 
seemed more violently ill. Even on the Wednes- 
day, the surgeon of the Cato saw no reason for 
anxiety. When Ernest Renan could be spared 
from the wharves of Gebeil, he sat at her side, 
she uncomplaining, he undisquieted, and continued 
the work they had both so deep at heart. He 
had reached the chapters of the Passion. But 
on the Thursday he too fell ill with the same 
mysterious disease, turn by turn mortal and 
trivial, which seizes on the victim, and looses 
him again, as a cat plays with a mouse. Un- 
happily the surgeon of the Cato always arrived 
when his patients were in their languid intervals 
of remittance. He did not know the pernicious 



142 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



malaria of the Syrian coast. He foresaw no 
serious consequences. But on Saturday morning 
M. Renan, when he dragged himself from his 
couch in the sitting-room to his sister's side, 
meaning to work beside her at his Life of fesus, 
was terrified by a new feature of the malady 
— the heart appeared affected. He dispatched 
a brief note to the surgeon of the Cato. He 
had time to remark the Maronite peasants 
passing his window on their way to church, and 
in this foreign half-savage country, the familiar 
sight filled him with a feeling of utter desolation 
and helplessness which he has since recorded. 
Then he himself fell down unconscious among 
his scattered books and papers. 

When, at nightfall, the French doctor arrived 
at Amschit, he found brother and sister, both 
apparently dead, laid out upon the carpet of 
the little salon, watched over by Antoun, their 
Syrian man-servant. The ship surgeon, dumb- 
foundered by this strange neuralgia, apparently 
of an irregular, fatal sort, retreated hastily to 
Beyrouth in search of more experienced advice. 
Later in the day the French commandant and 
the French doctors, seriously alarmed, climbed 
the steep road to Amschit. When they arrived, 
the unconscious bodies of Ernest and Henriette 
Renan had been transported from their rooms to 



A MISSION TO PHCENICIA 143 



the large reception-room of Zakhia, their wealthy 
Maronite host. There they lay, stretched out 
on the floor, the family of the worthy Zakhia 
grouped around them, wailing them as dead. It 
was a scene of a poignant barbaric melancholy. 

Henriette Renan never recovered consciousness. 
She died on the Tuesday morning. Her brother 
awoke from his long swoon about an hour before 
she expired. But he awoke to a troubled dream 
of things, clearly aware of nothing ; and Henri- 
ette died without his hand in hers. For days 
after he babbled of green fields, imagining that 
he was resting w r ith his sister by the springs of 
the river Adonis, under the great walnuts that 
stand above the waterfall. She was seated 
beside him in the deep grass ; he held to her 
lips a cup of ice-cold water. When he stirred 
in his dream it was to ask, " How is my sister ? " 
They answered, " Very ill ! " He smiled, and 
fell again to dreaming. When at last they said, 
" She is dead," he barely understood. No 
merciful silence was possible, for the Cato was 
waiting in harbour, and so soon as the invalid 
could bear the journey, he was put in a litter 
and carried seaward. Henriette he left behind 
him. She sleeps in the vault of Zakhia, under 
the palms of Amschit ; distant, in death as in 
life, from the Breton land she loved so well. 



144 LIFE OF ERNEST REN AN 



As a dream within a dream, there remained 
to haunt her brother the thought that Henriette 
had been spirited away from him alive, buried 
in the caverns of Lebanon while still in her living 
trance. For the likeness of that swoon to the 
last sleep filled him with fearful apprehensions, 
and he had never looked on Henriette's dead 
face. Even the presence of four French doctors 
at her deathbed could not entirely reassure him. 
And nearly twenty years after, in the Dream 
of Leoline^ he speaks out this inner anguish : 
" Ah, see, her eyes open ! Her long white hand 
moves out of the coffin. Her face is pale as of 
old, and her eyes swim in tears. Come, kiss me ! 
Dear, I have so much to tell thee ! How many 
years have passed since thy mortal fever. How 
weary thou must be with the long journey from 
thy grave. God knows that in all my joys 
I have never ceased to long for thy presence ; 
not one happy moment but I would have shared 
it with thee ! Ah, white shadow, open thine 
eyes, though it be for a quarter of an hour ; only 
one quarter of an hour in which to weep with 
thee, and expiate my faults towards thee, or 
suffer thy pious reproaches. O, pierced heart, 
how hast thou made me suffer ! For so many 
hours, bitter and sweet, give me at least a glance." 

There is no grief so terrible as to feel that, 



A MISSION TO PHOENICIA 145 



however innocently, we have abandoned our dearest 
in their hour of need. It is the grief of Peter. 
Renan never forgot that his sister died alone. 
For many years, she, at least, did not forsake 
him ; for those whom we lose by death do not 
quit us all at once. All the company of true 
mourners may echo the words of Hippolytus, 
//,s/£w pporeiag tfpotftfzffwv b^iXiag . . . kXvuv fih avbrjv, o^cc 
8bv£ bpoov to tor. We feel an irresistible aegis above 
us. An inner presence is more penetrating and 
more intimate than we ever knew it, for the dead 
speak to us now from within. Our continual 
meditation on a vanished object recreates it in 
ourselves. We grow like the dead we adore ; 
their spirit finds a home in us, and appears to use 
us and direct us at its will. But in the end our 
natural personality reasserts itself ; only very few 
souls are transformed into the image they recall. 
Renan's character, so sensitive, so impressionable, 
had none the less a ground-work of singular un- 
modifiableness ; even the kindred spirit of Henriette, 
so like his own, could not permanently change 
that stubborn essence. . . . Time passes ; the 
dead remain as dear ; but their influence per- 
vades us less and less, shrinks gradually back to 
its own centre, leaves us — as the fields are left on 
the retiring of a flood — fertilized, no doubt, and 
richer, but the same as before, land and not 

K 



146 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



water, ourselves and not another, for the rest 
of our time. . . . Even Love-in-Death cannot 
create a new spirit within us. 

So great, however, was the influence of Henriette, 
that, for years afterwards, not only her brother 
acted as she would have bid him act, but — far 
rarer triumph of love ! — he thought as she would 
have bid him think, in all seriousness, in all 
tenderness, with a remote and noble elevation — 
checking as they rose those impulses towards 
irony, towards frivolity, towards scepticism, which 
Henriette had not loved. 



PART III 



CHAPTER I 



THE COLLEGE OF FRANCE 
ITH half his heart in the mysterious king- 



* * dom of the dead, and himself still pallid 
with the reflection of that unseen world, Renan 
set himself to finish his Life of fesus — the book 
which Henriette had loved, " because we wrote 
it together." Never had the problems of religion 
appeared so all-important in his eyes ; never had 
he felt nearer to that infinite and eternal energy 
which beats at the heart of things : One in All. 
" The loss of my brave companion attached me 
closer than ever to studies which had cost so 
dear. ... I have looked Death in the face. 
The pygmy cares which eat our lives away are 
henceforth meaningless to me. I have brought 
back from the threshold of the infinite a livelier 
faith than I ever knew in the superior reality of 
the world of the Ideal. It alone exists : the 
physical world appears to exist. . . . The 
older I grow, the dearer I have at heart the one 
problem which ever keeps its profound signifi- 
cance, its enchanting novelty. The Infinite sur- 




ISO LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



rounds us, overlaps us, and haunts us. Bubbles 
on the surface of existence, we feel a mysterious 
kinship with our Father the Abyss. God is 
revealed, by no miracle, but in our hearts whence, 
as St Paul has said, an unutterable moaning goes 
up to Him without ceasing. And this sentiment 
of our obscure relationship to the universe, of our 
Divine descendance, graven in fire in every human 
heart, is the source of all virtue, the reason we 
love, and the one thing that makes our life worth 
living. Jesus is, in my eyes, the greatest of men, 
because He developed this dim feeling with an 
unprecedented, an unsurpassable power. His 
religion holds the secret of the future. . . . 
To transport religion beyond the supernatural 
— to separate the ever-triumphant cause of Faith 
from the vain forlorn hope of the Miraculous, is to 
render a service to them that believe. Religion 
is necessary — as eternal as poetry or love : Re- 
ligion will survive the destruction of all her 
illusions. I say it with confidence : the day will 
come when I shall have the sympathy of really 
religious souls." 1 

Henriette had said : write the Life of Jesus. 
Henriette had also said : maintain your candi- 
dature to the Chair of Hebrew and accept no 
other chair. Behold, her least utterance had now 

1 Questions Contemporaries 195 .. . 237 . . . 232 . . . 235. 



THE COLLEGE OF FRANCE 151 



become oracular. As Renan himself wrote to the 
Professors of the College of France : — " I saw an 
imperative revelation in the counsel of a beloved 
person who appeared to me haloed in the sacred 
aureole of death." Ah, why was Henriette not by 
his side ! She would have bid him keep distinct 
these two noble ambitions — bid him speak of 
Jesus in his book, analyse Semitic philology 
at the College of France. But at bottom, for 
all his airs of indecision, Renan burned to give 
a reason for the faith that was in him. 

At last, after nearly five years of silence, the 
Minister of Public Instruction demanded the lists 
from the College of France and the Academy of 
Inscriptions. Renan's name headed either. And 
a decree of the 1 ith January 1 862, proclaimed him 
Professor of Hebrew at the College of France. 

This election was passionately unpopular among 
the Catholics, and for due cause : the Chair of 
Hebrew being in fact a chair of Biblical criti- 
cism as we have said. But it was also, oddly 
enough, unpopular among the students of the 
Latin Quarter, indignant that Renan, their Renan, 
should have accepted office at the Emperor's 
hands. Was he going to turn his coat? At 
the mere idea they were all ready to shout with 
Robert Browning — 

" Just for a handful of silver he left us." 



152 LIFE OF ERNEST REN AN 



It was clear there would be at his opening 
lecture what the Latin Quarter loves to call a 
Chahut. Renan's opinions were known. If the 
Church was conspicuous by her absence, the 
young Catholic party was there en masse to 
avenge her. And the Liberal students were no 
less suspicious and defiant. The University, not 
wholly sympathetic to this unfrocked Seminarist of 
supposed Radical opinions ; the world of fashion, 
attracted by Renan's literary renown, helped to 
throng the hall. The lecturer appeared, his head 
in a dream, his mind full of Henriette, so cruelly 
absent, of the Life of Jesus, of his old dreams at 
last come true. He was barely aware of the various 
causes of offence which he had given. He just 
glanced at the amphitheatre crammed from floor 
to ceiling — at the students, clinging in clusters 
to the window ledges, shouting news of the 
lecture to the crowd, black in the street. ... 
I have heard it all described so vividly that it 
seems to me I, too, was there ! 

Then he began a parallel between the Semite 
and the Aryan. Anti-semitism was not yet a 
fashion ; there was nothing here to rail at. 
The face of the audience fell : was it this they 
had come out into the wilderness to hear ? 
The lecturer continued — " The Political Idea 
is Aryan. The French Revolution, for in- 



THE COLLEGE OF FRANCE 153 



stance, may often have compromised Liberty, 
but" . . . (Here the Latin Quarter saw its 
opportunity.) 

" Respect the Revolution, sir ! " thundered from 
a hundred throats. A quarter of an hour later 
an audacious comparison of King David to an 
" energetic Captain of Adventure " threw a 
bomb into the Catholic camp. By this time 
the Liberal students were aware that the 
lecturer was still their leader ; one and all 
they became forthwith his clamorous partisans. 
Their support alone rendered the delivery of 
the lecture possible. 

Was it well ? Better perhaps if, at the outset, 
an unjust turbulence had drowned the orator's 
voice. For one phrase in his speech — one 
sentence which nowadays any Liberal Christian 
would hear with tolerance, if not with approval 
— falling just at that impassioned moment 
on prejudiced ears, began a sequence of 
injustice, a series of misunderstandings, which 
were to make of the mild impartial scholar 
the notorious martyr of the Empire, the demi- 
god of a Republic he only half approved. 
To this day, in his native place, Renan is 
chiefly remembered as " a great Republican " 
by those who have never read a line of his 
writings. 



154 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



I can imagine Henriette's phantom mur- 
muring — 

" Ni cet exces d'honneur ni cette indignite ! n 

This was not the future she had foreseen, 
illustrious yet retired ; the life of a Le Nain de 
Tillemont secluded in some park of Seine-et- 
Oise, whose peaceful charmilles are not too far 
from the libraries of Paris, whose lofty grey- 
panelled chambers afford space and quiet for a 
voluminous research. Such a life, irradiate with 
the limpid light of Science, productive of labours 
which should satisfy countless generations of 
scholars, and never be profaned by the vulgarity 
of fame, such a life she would approve. She 
would have found something gross in the im- 
mense celebrity which began, on that 21st of 
February 1862, in the amphitheatre of the 
College of France. 

What a riot ! what a tumult ! Only here and 
there we catch a word, half drowned in hisses 
and acclamations. . . . " An incomparable Man, 
whom some, struck by His exceptional mission, 
call a God . . . victim of His ideal . . . deified 
in His death . . . founded the Eternal Religion 
of Humanity. . . . No man before Him had 
reached so high a standard of perfection. . . . 
For the time is come when ye shall worship 



THE COLLEGE OF FRANCE 155 



Me no longer along this mountain nor at 
Jerusalem, but in Spirit and in Truth." 1 

St Paul did not disdain to say: "Jesus of 
Nazareth, a Man sent from God among ye" 
(Acts ii. 22). Bossuel, after him, wrote with- 
out reproach of Christ as "a man of admirable 
mildness." But Renan's " homme incomparable " 
appeared the thrown gauntlet of the defiant 
apostate. The Church was not slow to take it 
up, nor the students to defend it ; the con- 
fusion grew deafening. The lecture over, 
Renan escaped by some back way to the 
house of a friend, haunted by the dread of a 
public ovation. The piece was played without 
Hamlet ; the students, en masse, swarmed to the 
Rue Madame, where the Renans lived, and (true 
Frenchmen !) demanded, in default of their idol, a 
glimpse of his mother. M. Egger, who was 
calling at the time, harangued the crowd in 
terms sufficiently vague to disguise from the 
old lady (a devotee of Throne and Altar) 
the full scandal of her son's success. He 
need not have been at the pains. The dark, 
witty old face had only its most benignant 
smile for the turbulence of Ernest's riotous 
champions. 

The fact remained that M. Renan's opening 

1 Melanges d'Histoire et de Voyages, p. 18. 



1 56 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



lecture had disturbed the cause of public order. 
Beset by the Church, by the Empress, Napoleon 
seized this excuse to suspend the young Professor 
from his functions. And Renan continued his 
lectures in his private study, still, nominally, 
Professor at the College of France. But on 
the 2nd of June 1864, on opening the morn- 
ing paper, he saw his name. He was trans- 
ferred from his chair at the College of France 
to a post of sub-librarian at the Imperial Library. 
The thing came on him as a thunder-clap. 
And insult was added to the injury by an 
official note, observing that this new appoint- 
ment was more in accordance with the dignity 
of a distinguished savant, " at present subject 
to the anomaly of receiving pay for work 
which he is not permitted to perform." Renan 
had acquitted himself of his duty, exactly, if 
in private. The fund of combativeness which 
every man has at heart seethed within him. 
He wrote to the minister, in a mood of ferocious 
irony : Pecunia tua tecum sit He refused the 
post of librarian, and maintained his right 
to the title of Professor at the College of 
France. 

On the nth of June Renan was officially 
destituted. He became one of the most popular 
members of the Liberal Opposition. Already, 



THE COLLEGE OF FRANCE 157 



in 1863, he had been invited to stand for Parlia- 
ment. In March of that year he wrote to 
Michele Amari. 1 

" I am preparing my Life of fesus, which will 
appear in about two months. I need not tell 
you on what lines it is written. The partisans 
of miracles will not be satisfied. I do not know 
what will come of it all ! Between you and 
me, I may say that if I should be deprived of 
my chair at the College of France, it is probable 
I may be elected as one of the Members for Paris. 
I cannot say that I am in love with the idea. I 
should have preferred the free and peaceable career 
of Higher Education. But it is not my fault if 
my feet are set on another road. And, if my 
election take place, it would have a meaning 
which would fill me with satisfaction ; to bring 
about such a declaration, I am ready for many 
sacrifices. All these things may be ! I am 
playing a difficult game and I do not see the 
upshot." 

The Life of fesus appeared on the 23 rd of 
June 1863. Before November, sixty thousand 
copies of it were in circulation. No such success 
had as yet issued from the printing presses of 
the century. ... At such a moment, there was 
something fitting in the destitution of Ernest 

1 Carteggio di Michele Amari 2 vols., Turin, 1896. 



158 



LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



Renan. The professor had become the artist ; 
the philologist, the man of letters ; the scholar, 
the politician. Too much glory, too wide an 
audience, ill befit the patient research of a 
laboratory. 



CHAPTER II 



THE LIFE OF JESUS 

npHE Life of fesus is naturally the first of 
Kenan's seven volumes on the Origins 
of Christianity. Even more than its successors 
it is a work, not of erudition, not of technical 
exegesis, but of moral and psychological enquiry, 
based on historical documents. Renan was cer- 
tainly familiar with the curious mosaic of Le Nain 
de Tillemont, he knew almost by heart the New 
Testament, he had read and re-read the pages 
of Josephus ; to this foundation, solid if restricted, 
he added a rare archaeological capacity, an ac- 
quaintance with the monuments, moneys, and 
inscriptions of the first centuries of our era which, 
of a surety, no other religious historian possesses ; 
he was, moreover, a traveller, whom a year's 
residence in Syria had accustomed to the horizons, 
the races, and the character of the Holy Land : 
the fresh impressions of his visit colour every 
page ; but, above all, he was a psychologist, a 
man who had once believed, who had felt the 
pulse of his soul, with as much curiosity as 

159 



i6o LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



anguish, during the long years in which that dear 
belief expired : a man to whom, even after its 
death, the impulse of Faith remained the holiest, 
and the most interesting thing in the universe. 
His rustic and religious origin enabled this man 
of science to enter into the spirit of a credulous 
country folk, and to analyse, without illusion, 
without derision, the creative process of their 
minds. The result is a master-piece. The 
pure idyll of Galilee, hardly less sacred to Renan 
than to the most fervent Churchman ; the Passion 
of Jerusalem ; the religious East ; and philosophic 
Greece, animating a Syrian people with the 
spirit of the Gospel of St John ; the dogmatic 
force and fervour of St Paul, supplying, as it were, 
channels and imperishable aqueducts for the New 
Source of Life which the rod of Jesus had set 
welling; all the great concourse of saints, martyrs, 
mystics, heretics, and charlatans who laboured 
together blindly in a Cause superior to even the 
noblest among them ; and the cruel consolidating 
force of persecution ; and Nero, the Antichrist, 
throwing into stronger relief the ideal perfec- 
tion of Jesus : all this, grouped against a vast 
Mediterranean background — Syria, Antioch, Alex- 
andria, Athens, Rome — lives and glows before us 
in the pages of Renan. 

In the beginning there was a Life of unequalled 



THE LIFE OF CHRIST 161 



perfection. The origins of Christianity begin with 
the Life of Jesus. To write a Life of fesus has 
been the fatality of modern theology, for the 
hero of a biography can only be a man. The 
Christ, who, at a given date, was born of Jewish 
stock, in the obscure village of a distant Roman 
protectorate ; who grew to manhood among 
certain Syrian peasants, whose appearance, 
education, and racial character he shared ; 
who spoke an Aramean dialect, and never 
knew Greek ; loses, by just so much as he 
gains in historic precision, the vague glory of 
universal Divinity. The theologian who would 
write the life of Jesus should compose a hymn. 
In such matters the Trisagion alone is really 
orthodox. 

So early as 1838, Salvador, and towards i860, 
Bunsen, had published, in their different fashions, 
material towards a history of the early Church. 
In 1840, Littre's translation of Strauss's Life 
of fesus acquainted the French public with the 
speculations of Tubingen. More than to any 
of these, Renan owed to Herder : Herder, 
whose philosophy of history had helped to 
mould his mind. That elegant philosopher, 
Christian archaeologist, and philologist, fully 
alive to the literary excellence of the text he 
examines, — that man of feeling and ideas, in- 

L 



1 62 LIFE OF ERNEST REN AN 



fluenced by his age and largely influencing it, — 
was a man after Renan's heart. He never under- 
stood the austere and hard-headed rationalists of 
the school of Tubingen, as deficient in tact and 
measure as they are rich in knowledge. 

Renan's debt to Tubingen has been exag- 
gerated. The fault and the charm of his Life 
of fesus is that he wrote it insufficiently pre- 
pared. The charm — because its extraordinary 
spontaneity makes the book a sort of fifth Gospel 
— the gospel, if you will, according to Thomas 
Didymus. The pages written on the mud floor 
of a Syrian cottage, with Joseph and the Gospels 
for their only sponsors, keep the freshness, the 
life and the beauty of their original inspiration. 
Renan's Life of fesus is the biography of a 
divinity written by a worshipper still prostrate 
before the dead body of his god, but convinced 
there will be no resurrection. Its superiority 
is its profound religious sentiment, its living, 
vibrating atmosphere of the East, its sense of 
the human personality, the life of Jesus. 

Strauss, on the other hand, is a gnostic of 
the nineteenth century. All that he touches 
turns to allegory, myth, and symbol. His 
Christ is an ^Eon — a glittering abstraction. The 
aureole which the faith of the multitude has 
lit around the face of Jesus blinds him to the 



THE LIFE OF CHRIST 163 



features which it frames. His Saviour is a logical 
deduction from prophecy. We wonder why the 
first Christians lived hard, and died harder, for 
love of so unreal a Messiah. There is no life 
in these dead bones. The dogmatic man of 
science has no sense of a thing so delicate, so 
fluctuating, so spontaneous, so mysterious, as the 
birth of a faith. 

But only a German university can produce the 
sum of labour necessary to collect, control, revise 
and criticise the vast material of any given his- 
tory. If, when he began his Life of fesus, Renan 
had been better acquainted with the researches 
of Strauss, Baur, Hilgenfeld, Reuss, Schwegler, 
Ewald, Zeller, and other erudites, he would not 
have taken a document of, we suppose, the end 
of the first century for a contemporary narrative 
of the life of Christ. A characteristic preference 
for ideas over facts, an affinity for the man who 
philosophises about events rather than for him 
who simply records them, led Renan to lay the 
greatest stress on the Gospel according to St 
John. Later on he saw the error of his ways, 
and, with the good faith he always showed, he 
recast many passages of his original work : after 
the thirteenth edition the difference is striking. 
But something undecided, embarrassed, clings to 
the work, which I consider inferior to at least 



1 64 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



three of the volumes which were to follow it — the 
exquisite Apostles ', so humane and so tender in its 
feeling of human brotherhood ; St Paul, a study 
in sociology and in the psychology of geography ; 
Antichrist, a magnificent historical painting. The 
Life of fesus contains incomparable passages, but 
the whole does not carry conviction. This Christ 
is too Celtic, too German ; he is too much 
like Ernest Renan. And the writer's attitude 
is not clear. He is not a Catholic, so much is 
evident since he denies the divinity of Christ ; 
but he is also not a free-thinker, a disinterested 
historical student ; for his Christ is more than 
the founder of a great religion, he is something 
quite apart from, quite above and beyond such 
human sons of God as Moses, Mahomet, or 
Buddha. Renan will none of them. " Christi- 
anity," he declares, " has become almost the 
synonym of religion ; all that is attempted out- 
side its great and fertile tradition is doomed to 
sterility. . . . Christ is the creator of the eternal 
religion of humanity." This is limiting the 
future. The divine essence has more than one 
manifestation, and in the million years of man's 
progress may reveal itself in many ways. On 
the lips of an unbeliever, so absolute an affirma- 
tion is more than incongruous — even a little 



THE LIFE OF CHRIST 165 



exasperating. And occasionally Renan reminds 
us of some inconsolable widower who, after the 
stormiest married life, waxes eloquent of the 
departed. If the marriage was so impossible, 
why these tears ? But if the poor man be sincere, 
he will not listen to you. 

Renan was sincere, and in the things of the 
heart there is no magic like sincerity. So heart- 
felt, so hopeless, his pious unbelief took the world 
by storm. For the world is full of men and 
women who once believed, and who keep green 
and strown with flowers the tomb of a dead ideal. 
Here was a man who could speak the dumb 
word in their hearts ; a man whose lips the 
Eternal had touched with his fiery coal ; a man 
who cried no more, as we all cry — d a domine, 
nescio loquil Genius was in the book, and 
sincerity, and a very tender reverence. As the 
Empress said to Madame Cornu, in great surprise, 
when at last she had read the maligned volume : 
" It can do no harm to believers ; to unbelievers 
it can only do good." 

The most beautiful pages of the Life of fesus 
open the succeeding volume, the Apostles, and 
treat of the life-after-death of our Lord. We 
doubt if there exist in any language more ex- 
quisite pages of religious psychology. Here, 



i66 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



again, it is, from the historical point of view, un- 
fortunate that Renan should have followed the 
narrative according to St John. As was often 
the case, the artist in him tempted the historian, 
and the historian yielded. For the version of 
St John is infinitely more pathetic, more probable, 
more lovely than the versions of the synoptic 
Gospels. And doubtless the narrative was in- 
spired by an authentic oral tradition. But, in 
a question of history, a scientific historian has 
no right to choose a page, however beautiful, 
of a later writer, in place of a prosaic narrative 
copied from a lost recital possibly contemporary 
with the event described. If Renan had been, 
as single-mindedly as he believed the sole servant 
of Truth, he would have chosen Mark or Luke 
for his guide in this matter. 

But if we may question Renan's judgment 
in the criticism of his texts, we can only marvel 
at the extraordinary ingenuity with which he 
interprets them. With all the piety of the 
Christian, with all the scruple of the man of 
science, he gives an explanation of the Resur- 
rection which leaves no least suspicion of fraud 
to blur the aureole of our dearest saints, and yet 
sets an event, which we cannot accept as super- 
natural, in accordance with the normal laws of 



THE LIFE OF CHRIST 167 



things. The vision of Mary Magdalene accom- 
plished the necessary miracle — Christ had arisen. 
" In these crises of the miraculous, it is easy 
enough to see what another has seen. The one 
merit is to see before the others, for those that 
come after model their vision on the received 
type. It is the peculiarity of fine organisa- 
tions to see promptly, exactly, and in the true 
line of things. The glory of the Resurrection 
belongs to Mary Magdalene. After Jesus, she, 
more than any other, laid the foundations of 
Christianity. The shadow which her delicate senses 
perceived — nay, created- — still shelters the world. 
Queen and patroness of idealists, she knew, as 
no other has known, how to affirm her own 
ideal, and to force upon others the sacred vision 
of her passionate soul. Her great woman's 
assertion, ' He is risen ! 9 is the basis of the 
faith of Humanity." 

Beauty of the fabric, fragility of the foundation, 
necessity of the consoling vision, fleeting illusion 
of all things save the infinitely small which we 
measure in the hollow of our hand ! And who 
shall say which, in the essential is truest : Life 
which is a dream, or the dream which may be 
Life ? All here below is but a sign and a symbol, 
the sun in the heavens no less than the phantom 



168 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



of desire. The symbols which serve to give a 
form to the religious sentiment are incomplete 
and transitory ; but a great truth inhabits them 
and makes of the least of them the temple of an 
hour. 



CHAPTER III 



THE ORIGINS OF CHRISTIANITY 

CHRISTIANITY is not a simple faith ; it is 
a profound theology, a tremendous organ- 
isation. The Son of Man appeared, loved the 
world and died, leaving a trail of light behind 
him. His message is contained in the dis- 
courses of Matthew, in the parables of Luke. 
But a pure religion is too ethereal a thing to 
subsist uncontaminate in the dense atmos- 
phere of reality. The work of Jesus was taken 
up and completed by a man of action. And 
this is what Renan shows us in his volume on 
St Paul. 

His portrait of the Apostle is striking, life-like, 

unexpected. For hitherto, in all the great images 

which he loves to evoke from the recesses of the 

past, Renan has sought some secret kinship with 

his own soul. Here there is none ! St Paul is 

scarce a saint, not at all a poet, a sage, a dreamer, 

or a man of science. He was a hero of the 

Active Life — a missionary and a conqueror, with 

169 



170 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



a fierce, tender, proselytizing soul, not averse to 
combat, often susceptible, sometimes jealous, 
capable of rancour and aggression. For once 
Renan has got outside himself. He calls up 
before us the bizarre little Jew with his halting 
speech, his incorrect and hurried eloquence, his 
bent shoulders, his pale face with the large 
features, his piercing eyes under their shaggy 
eyebrows. The vision is so vivid that we scarce 
have the heart to cavil at the insufficient tradi- 
tion which is its only warrant : the same tradi- 
tion maintains that St Paul was remarkable for 
his personal beauty. 

St Paul, as we know, was a Pharisee and a man 
of some education. The fact that he spoke with 
fluency a Greek dialect was all-important in the 
propagation of Christianity, for Greek was the 
chief language of the Mediterranean ports, and 
a mere Hebrew missionary, confined to his own 
tongue, would have been of scant influence with 
the Gentiles. Paul, a Jew by birth, a Roman 
citizen by hereditary right, a Greek by language, 
was no less cosmopolitan than the world he 
moved in — the brilliant, variegated, incoherent 
world of Asia Minor : Splendid Antioch, " third 
city of the globe," with its temples, baths, and 
aqueducts, its wide streets bordered with stately 
columns and statues ; immense Ephesus clamber- 



THE ORIGINS OF CHRISTIANITY 171 



ing from the marshes up the sacred hills, with the 
shrine of Diana in its midst, and all round the 
clear horizons of the Asiatic plain ; Antioch, 
Ephesus, Corinth, vast centres of wealth and 
superstition, cities full of magicians and miners 
and flute-players, of goldsmiths and courtezans, of 
priests, rhetoricians, and novelists : such were the 
unlikely cradles of the New Idea. Renan who, 
in 1864, visited the whole area of the peregrin- 
ations of St Paul, has fixed with the subtlest, 
most vivid art, the very image of this vanished 
world. 

" Like Socialism now - a - days, Christianity 
sprouted on what we call the corruption of 
great cities." It was a movement of the hard- 
pressed, intelligent, unlettered poor, who abounded 
in the meaner suburbs of the Mediterranean 
ports. 

There the wandering Christian workman set up 
his tent, there he sowed the good seed, and then 
passed on. Like a travelling journeyman who 
leaves behind him the trace of his opinion in 
every wayside tavern where he has halted, in 
every village where he has made friends, Paul, in 
especial, wandered from place to place, tramping 
over hill or down dale, coasting from port to port, 
working for his bread, even while he set forth how 
man does not live by bread alone. At Ephesus 



172 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



and Corinth, assisted by Aquila and Priscilla, he 
set up, in some back street, a small shop for the 
sale of the coarse Cilician canvas which it was his 
trade to weave. In every town where he halted 
he gained converts to the Faith. Christianity 
was to spring in all her glory from these small 
clusters of fervid, illiterate, primitive persons, 
grouped, as a rule, round some virtuous well-to-do 
widow, some spiritually - minded tradesman of 
means. The Early Churches were narrow circles 
of some dozen believers. " Probably all the con- 
verts of St Paul did not number a thousand all 
told." 

Renan's rare knowledge of the social conditions 
of antiquity on the Mediterranean shore has en- 
abled him to reconstruct the double organization 
which was to contain Christianity, even as the 
hive and the wax contain the honey. The outer 
framework, as we may say, was the compact 
Orbis of the Roman Empire. One sole adminis- 
tration governed all the countries visited by 
the Apostles. Their propaganda would have 
been impossible had Asia, Macedonia, Malta, 
the cities of Greece and Italy, each been con- 
stituted in separate and vivacious nationalities, 
each with their own exclusive tradition, faith, and 
speech. But the Pax Romana enveloped them 
all in one monotony. A great dull well-being 



THE ORIGINS OF CHRISTIANITY 173 



brooded over the vast Empire : the tedium of a 
civilization which has attained its goal and has 
nothing left to desire. 

" If life consisted in amusing oneself by 
order of the Law, in eating one's ration of daily 
bread, in taking the regulation pleasure sadly 
under the eye of one's chief, then the Roman 
juris consults would have solved the problem of 
human government." But a mortal coldness 
breathed from this dismal prosperity : Rome 
offered nothing to love ! Deep in man's heart 
is the instinct of choice. The phalanstery, how- 
ever comfortable, is not the home, nor the chance 
desk-fellow the selected comrade. He longs 
for the little coterie of chosen spirits, the guild 
the confraternity, where he contributes, of his 
own free will, to the welfare of his mates and 
his own security. The sense of fellowship is 
an instinct which must be allowed for ! In 
the lowest circles of the Roman Empire men 
met together in secret to satisfy this sacred 
prompting. The Syrian, Greek, and Jewish 
quarters were full of little illicit Collegia — Friendly 
Societies, Mutual Aid Societies, Burial Societies 
especially — condemned by the Government as 
possible hot-beds of disaffection, but in reality 
peaceful enough in their humble brotherhood. 
The members were all of the poorest class : 



174 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



servants, porters, hucksters, old-clo , men, tinder 
sellers and such like. Christianity immediately 
illuminated the small Collegia. 

And what was the ghetto but a larger, a 
more complete Collegium ? A Collegium whose 
life and centre was the Synagogue ? No gulf, 
no apparent schism, as yet divided Christianity 
from the Law and the prophets. The first 
apostles sought their quarters in the ghetto. 
There they awaited patiently the Sabbath day, 
and then followed the crowding Israelites into 
the square, plain structure which was less a 
church than a school, a debating society. It 
was the hospitable custom of Jewry to invite 
the stranger within its gates to greet the brethren 
with some discourse of edification. Paul and 
the apostles found thus their opportunity. In 
the Synagogue they preached the Gospel. In 
the Synagogue they made their first converts. 
In the Synagogue they aroused their earliest 
persecutors. 

For no people are (or were) so well instructed 
as the Jews in the authentic dogma and tradition 
of their own religion. Paul's audacious theories 
roused a dozen eager voices, clamouring to con- 
fute the heretic. Hence stonings, flagellations, 
prison, exile. But hence also the instantaneous 
bruiting abroad of Christian doctrine. The 



THE ORIGINS OF CHRISTIANITY 175 



complicated ritual of Judaism was perhaps a 
safeguard, it was certainly a barrier. It is 
impossible to imagine the world accepting a 
creed overcharged by so many observances. 
Paul proclaimed : " The Letter kills, the Spirit 
maketh alive." By declaring of no account the 
distinctions between the clean and the unclean, 
he admitted the Gentiles to the Faith, but he 
outraged Judaism. In every religion there are 
always more men ready to avenge a violated 
ritual than to accept the new life of a free 
spirit. Judaism, as a body, was lost to 
Christianity. But in exchange it gained the 
world. Instead of a sect of the ghetto, it 
became the purest worship of the civilization it 
renewed. 

Therein was the merit of Paul. By his pas- 
sionate affirmation of the broad freedom of 
Christ he completed and secured the work of 
Jesus. The history of his struggle at tre- 
mendous odds ; the sunny, breezy, joyous 
narration of his divine Odyssey ; the picture 
of the social conditions under which he 
laboured, is the subject of Renan's two volumes, 
The Apostles y and St Paul. Seldom has the 
master shown a science more solid, a profounder 
sense of the secret roots of things, a more vivid 
and brilliant vocation of their living image, 



176 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



than in this volume which, dealing with docu- 
ments and facts beyond dispute, contains nothing 
to grieve the liberal Christian, much to instruct 
the student, and, more to rejoice the lover of 
literature. 



CHAPTER IV 



POLITICS 

NOT for a moment was Renan's weighty 
mind thrown out of gear by the prodigious 
success of the Life of fesus. He was aware that 
an author's popularity is almost always the result 
of a misunderstanding. He liked being liked, no 
doubt, as much as St Augustine " loved to love." 
Popularity was a pleasant episode. He would 
not let it become an aim. 

Had he continued the "Origins of Christianity" 
in a crescendo of anti-clericalism, Renan would 
have become the idol of the market-place. He 
would have been to 1870 what Lamartine had 
been to 1848: the vates, the philosopher, the 
chosen guide. But the unity and the dignity 
of Renan's life sprang from his sense of belonging 
to a superior order vowed to superior duties : he 
was the priest of Truth. Instead of contesting a 
Parisian circonscription, he went to Asia Minor 
with his wife and studied on the spot, as minutely 
as he had studied the civilization of Palestine and 
Syria, the local conditions into which were born 

M 177 



178 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



the Christian churches. Then he came home and 
continued the Origins of Christianity in a mood 
of absolute abstraction from the passions of the 
hour. 

The Apostles appeared in 1866, St Paul in 
1869. Renan looked up from his task at the 
world about him, and saw that the soul of France 
was disquieted within her. At heart he was still 
a priest, a man set apart, elect, a member of a 
moral aristocracy, — and therefore responsible for 
the errors of his inferiors. To-day, as in 1843, 
he thought : — 

" A private life would be my happiness ; but 
such a life appears to me tainted by selfishness. 
I ought to be a priest ; for the priest is the de- 
positary both of wisdom and good counsel ; the 
man of study, the man of meditation, and yet a 
very brother to his brethren." 1 

Renan, so far at least, was no sceptic, no mere 
dilettante indifferent to mankind. He had the 
tenderest sense of fraternity, the most absolute 
sense of the efficacy of the Ideal ; there was 
balm in Gilead still ! If he believed it impossible, 
and perhaps unnecessary, to admit the multitude 
into the arcana of that temple wherein he was a 
servant, he accepted none the less, and indeed 
all the more, the claim which the ignorance 

Lettres Intimes, p. 118. 



POLITICS 



179 



of the laity laid upon him in their hours of 
perplexity and error. It is a mistake to say, 
as I have heard it said, that Renan was an 
ambitious man — that he desired to govern his 
inferiors, and to impose the triumph of his own 
ideas. But it is less of a mistake, I maintain, 
than to imagine him, as the main public of 
France imagines him, an idle dreamer in his 
ivory tower. He was, in fact, a conscientious 
leader of humanity, sometimes misguided, ever 
willing to seek a better way. 

France in 1869 had reached a high degree of 
material prosperity. Napoleon III. had taught 
the French how rich they were. But the seeing 
eye could read the threat of disaster in the shifty 
brilliance of the hour. All the roots of France 
were exhausted in the production of one beauti- 
ful, sterile orchid, — Paris. The provinces were 
sapped, drained, lifeless ; neither country gentry, 
nor county boards, nor local interests, supplied 
the provincial with an existence of his own. As 
France only bloomed in Paris, so Paris flowered 
in the Court : a fast, frivolous, superficial, spend- 
thrift Court of tinsel soldiers, of reckless beauties, 
of brilliant authors : a world of little theatres and 
universal exhibitions, of Baron Haussmanns and 
Cora Pearls. It was clearly time that the order 
of things should change. 



i8o LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



The General Election came round in May 
1869. It was then that the Liberal Opposition 
asked Renan to stand for Meaux. At some 
sacrifice of time and fortune he consented. The 
gods must have smiled to see Ernest Renan 
go a-canvassing among the wealthy corn-growers, 
the rich butter-merchants and cheese-mongers 
of the plains of Brie. Brie, by nature of its 
proximity to Paris, is Radical, anti-clerical, and 
prosperous : it sells its wares to the Capital, and 
takes, in exchange, some tint of Parisian ideas : 
but it is a Radicalism fat with grass and grain, 
fed to bursting with rich milk and the flesh of 
kine : the Radicalism of the peasant landlord : 
the most illiberal opinion of any party. 

The vast plains were one shimmering ocean of 
pale green, with last year's great ricks stranded 
here and there, like ships, among the unbounded 
corn, when Ernest Renan traversed them in the 
spring of '69. What can he have said to the 
influential voters who inhabit these solid farms ? 
How they must have astonished each other, he 
and they ? I can imagine a conversation some- 
thing after this fashion : — 

Farmer of Brie. — "Good morning, Mister. You 
support the Liberal programme ? " 

M. Renan. — " Yes, on the whole. . . . We 
can indeed imagine a superior social order in 



POLITICS 



181 



which the individual would be remorselessly — 
perhaps, indeed, willingly — sacrificed in order to 
promote, in a few, the acquisition of some yet 
undreamed-of good. But France appears irre- 
vocably devoted to Liberty, to the happiness of 
the mass, to a small, prosperous, somewhat vulgar, 
affluence." 

F. ofB. — " Well, well ! And you will vote for 
the extension of the Board Schools ? " 

M. Renan. — " Certainly ! If Science be the 
chief good, what right have we to debar our 
brother from it ? And yet, I own, I deplore 
the abolition of the unlettered class, charming in 
its rural simplicity, shrewd with a mother-wit of 
its own, the faithful depositary of the ideas and 
fancies of our remotest forefathers. The peasant, 
the priest, and the noble are the only loveable 
classes ! The Board Schools will replace the 
peasant by a pretentious, ill-bred, self-made rustic, 
infinitely more dangerous to Science, and probably 
hopelessly unfitted for the sphere into which he is 
born. The School Board will be the ruin of a 
superior ideal. But let Justice be accomplished ! 
Yes, yes, my friend, I shall vote for the School 
Board." 

F. of B. — (Does the man think me an ass ?) 
" And the taxes ? At least, you are firm for 
cutting down the taxes ? " 



1 82 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



M. Renan. — " In part. It is certain that, in the 
whole cause of history, nothing has ever rendered 
a government so unpopular as excessive taxation. 
And yet ! a tax, rightly regarded, is a form 
of disinterestedness, a way of participating in 
the real life of the world. Our poor selfish aims 
— all the criss-cross of rival activities which make 
up the struggle for our daily bread, — are as nought 
in the sight of the Eternal ! Our personal ambi- 
tions, our thousand little strifes, successes, and 
reverses are all, as we may say, consumed in 
the wear and tear of the universe : every day 
supplies the fuel of every day. But the little 
fund of reserve force which makes the world 
go round is the devotion which we willingly 
give to an end outside ourselves, distilled, drop 
by drop, from millions of selfish lives. Nothing 
is so vain, so imbecile, as selfishness : beware of 
selfishness ! Sometimes, I confess, I see the 
future of earth as a planet of idiots, each basking 
in his own particular ray, indifferent to all outside 
his well-sunned limbs. Selfishness is the curse 
of great material prosperity. And it may be 
that, in this vast sunlit sheet of springing corn 
before us, in all this panorama of grain and kine, 
of earth and river, the one thing which really 
exists is the tax which each yields of its increase 
for the general weal of the nation." 



POLITICS 



183 



F. of B. — " Dang it, the man's gone daft ! 
Good morning, Mister ! " 

On one point, at least, M. Renan and his con- 
stituency were as one. All his electioneering 
bills bore in flaming letters — " No War. No 
Revolution. A War would be as disastrous as 
a Revolution." The Prussians may still have 
read them on the village walls round Meaux. 
And on this theme M. Renan was never too 
eloquent to please his hearers. He had then, as 
always, the most brilliant success as a speaker. 
His wit, his astonishing naturalness, the originality 
and the fundamental good sense of his paradoxes, 
the charm of his manner, his air of enjoying the 
ideas with which the occasion inspired him, made 
him irresistible as an orator. And, at bottom, his 
hearers and he were of a like opinion — at least as 
to the prospect of war. Among the peasants of 
Brie there reigned, in 1869, the most complete 
indifference to military glory. They had a 
certain honest respect for freedom, but at bottom 
all that they asked was that the Prefet should 
meddle as little as possible in their affairs, 
that the taxes should be diminished, that the 
term of military service — which took so many 
strong young arms from the harvest — should be 
shortened as much as possible. All that they 
asked was to be left free to make their own for- 



1 84 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



tunes out of their own fields in their own way. 
M. Renan looked in some wonder at these persons 
incapable of a sacrifice, incapable of a general 
idea. He found the farmer of Brie un etre borne. 
He wondered at this thriving rustic, " content in his 
gross and trivial comfort without a thought in his 
head." M. Jules Simon used to say that, when asked 
if he would vote with his party, M. Renan was wont 
to muse, and to reply, at last :— Sometimes ! But 
though he must have appeared an extraordinary 
politician, Renan 's reputation was immense ; 
probably his eccentricities were taken as the 
hall mark of his genius. The Minister of the 
Interior took great pains over this affair, and it 
was not without a struggle that Ernest Renan 
was defeated for the constituency of Meaux. 

The tendency of the elections as a whole was 
distinctly Liberal. The Empire itself at last, and 
especially the Emperor, had absorbed a great deal 
of the Liberal theory, and gave out as much 
liberty, or thereabouts, as France at that moment 
could assimilate without excess. L Empire Liberal 
sought to repair its wrongs towards Ernest 
Renan: already in the spring of 1870, there 
was some talk of reinstating him in his Chair of 
Hebrew at the College of France. True, the 
affair was only completed under the Ministry 
of Jules Simon, on the 17th November, after 



POLITICS 



the fall of the Empire ; but the first steps 
towards Renan's rehabilitation were taken six 
months before that catastrophe. And, in fact, 
Renan had accepted the Liberal Empire. It was 
part of his theory that progress comes not by 
leaps and bounds, but little by little : that out 
of chaos comes misrule, and out of misrule 
gradually a better order. He would have 
accepted the chair of Quatremere as a Liberal 
victory, infinitely more important than the defeat 
of Meaux. 

Much in the spirit of a Merovingian Bishop, — 
who, unable to chase the barbarians from Gaul, 
should set himself to civilize them, — Renan not 
uncheerfully assumed the moral education of the 
Empire. He had no doubt of its stability ; he 
had touched as it were with his hands the wealth, 
the solidity, the love of peace, of rural France. 
The Government was certainly bad ; but a 
system which encouraged the endowment of 
research could surely not be wholly corrupt. 
On the 8th of May 1870, seven and a half 
millions of Frenchmen declared themselves 
satisfied with LEmpire Liberal Brilliant and 
hollow beyond example, France appeared destined 
to show that a nation can flourish merely by the 
excessive animation of its surface, as if a man, 
having coughed up all his lungs, should live on 



1 86 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



by the extraordinary breathing power of his 
skin. 

Such health is deceptive. The Emperor him- 
self was not deceived. The Empress said : unless 
we have a war, my son will not come to the 
throne. By a second act of high treason, by a 
second Coup d'Etat, more culpable and more 
disastrous even than the first, on the 19th July 
1 870, the Emperor declared war against Germany. 
Renan was at Tromsoe, in the far North of Nor- 
way, in company with the Prince J6rome-Napol6on, 
as innocent of apprehension as himself. " What 
a crime, what a fit of stark, staring madness ! " he 
wrote to Sir Mountstuart Grant Duff. 1 " I had 
thought the danger of war waived for years, per- 
haps for ever. . . . The greatest heartache of my 
life followed the opening of that fatal telegram." 

1 Sir M. G. Duff, Ernest Renan, p. 81. 



CHAPTER V 



THE WAR RENAN AS PROPHET 

T3 ENAN hastened home and joined his family 
a t th e small house near S&vres, where he 
was accustomed to spend the summer. From 
the first he knew what to expect. A formidable 
discipline, an organised force at the service of a 
great idea, had come into contact with an in- 
coherent mass of martial vanity and irresponsible 
impulse. Electrified by the mere hallucination 
of Napoleon's ghost, France was doomed to 
defeat ; and, in his prophetic vision, Renan wept 
her defeat in tears of blood, for she suffered it 
at the hands of his ideal. 

All his life he had dreamed of uniting 
France and Germany. He saw them lead 
the United States of Europe in the van of 
civilization — the one passionately alive to all 
that is generous, liberal, or lovely ; the other 
proud in her hereditary strength of science and 
authority. Together they might head the world ; 
and now . . . ! 

187 



1 88 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



Behold, the nation to which Renan owed all 
that was best in him — the nation of Goethe, 
Herder, Kant — revealed itself as a rout of 
drunken troopers setting fire to Bazeilles ! The 
brutal Bavarian, the plundering Swab, the 
blustering Prussian, these were the teachers whom 
he had ever held up as patterns of morality and 
culture ! No man in France, we may fairly say, 
suffered more in that hour than Ernest Renan ; 
for the Franco-German war was to him as a 
civil war, and he saw his two countries closed in 
a murderous struggle. 

Admirable in his freedom from party passion, 
Renan never let go his hold on the general 
relation of things. After Bazeilles, after Sedan, in 
the midst of his cruel experience of the hard and 
arbitrary spirit of Prussia, Renan still saw un- 
obscured the ideal Germany which had formed 
his mind. His country in flames, the Prussians 
in sight of Paris, his own little house at S&vres 
pillaged by his divinities, left him still convinced. 
Behind this evident mass of drill-sergeants, 
quarter-masters, heroes, and scoundrels — Goths 
alike — there existed none the less a superior 
order, an invisible senate of philosophers, men 
of science, scholars, jurists (men of action also), 
working together in the service of humanity. 
These were really Germany ; and Germany being 



THE WAR— RENAN AS PROPHET 189 



the most adequate expression of reason, would 
listen to reason. 

While the Prussians were taking up their 
positions at Versailles and St Cloud, Renan sat 
down and wrote to David Strauss an open letter 
denouncing the war as a crime against civilization, 
pleading against the annexation of Alsace-Lor- 
raine as a blunder in history, for Germany has 
need of France as an ally against the growing 
strength of Russia. The letter is eloquent and 
noble. All through it echoes that love of Europe 
which was Renan's true patriotism, that dis- 
interested devotion to the future of humanity 
which is his peculiar glory. But, alas ! when 
did prophet arrest the course of battle ? Strauss 
chuckled in his beard, translated his ingenuous 
correspondent's pamphlet, and sold it for the 
profit of the Prussian ambulances ; whilst, on 
the horizon, Germany wrote her answer in flames 
by the arson of St Cloud. 

If Renan's attitude was a failure abroad, at 
home it was a scandal. Even his nearest friends 
deplored the prophet's madness. An exasperated 
patriotism contracted the nerves of France. It 
was not precisely the moment to speak of the 
chosen few, of that elite of reasonable humanity 
the wide world over — " Neither Greek nor Bar- 
barian, neither German or Latin " — who from an 



190 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



empyrean raised above the struggles of race 
and country, should remain undivided in their 
Olympian goodwill, 1 and direct the affairs of 
mankind. A line in Goncourt's Journal, — re- 
ported with the inevitable inexactitude resulting 
from the incapacity of a Goncourt to comprehend 
a Renan, yet undeniably precious — shows us 
the completeness of the misunderstanding be- 
tween the idealist philosopher and a defeated 
nation : — 

" Berthelot continued his distressing revelations. 
When he had done, I exclaimed, 6 All is over ! 
There is nothing left save to rear a generation 
to avenge us ! ' — ' No ! no ! ' cried Renan, 
starting up, with his face aflame. ' No ven- 
geance ! Perish France, rather ! Perish the 
idea of country ! Higher still is the Kingdom 
of Duty and Reason ! ' — ' No ! no ! 9 yelled the 
whole table, ' there is nothing above one's country 
— nothing ! ' By this time Renan had left his 
chair and was walking round and round the 
table with his shambling gait, waving his little 
arms in the air, and quoting aloud fragments 
of Holy Scripture, as he muttered, ' That's the 
essential ! " 2 

Doubtless Isaiah appeared as odious, and no less 

1 Lettre a David Strauss, Ref. Intellectuelle et Morale. 

2 E. de Goncourt, Journal, 2nd serie, 1st volume, p. 28. 



THE WAR— REN AN AS PROPHET 191 



grotesque, in the eyes of the Court of Jerusalem 
on more than one occasion. 1 Was not the 
reproach of old cast up against the prophets 
that they, sons of Israel, were friends of the 
Assyrian ? 

What is a prophet but a popular spokesman 
animated by the idea of God ; inspired by the 
Spirit to protest against the dulness, the mean- 
ness, the cruelty or the iniquity of the times? 
Such, at least, and not mere visionaries and 
soothsayers, were the seers of Israel. Such, on 
his measure and degree, was Ernest Renan 
during the one difficult and heartbreaking year 
of the war. Exposed to the long agony of the 
siege, unpopular, without credit in the eyes of 
the violent factions which divided the country, 
Renan continued to preach his message, and to 
show the sacred hope of a future redeemed by 
the humiliations of the present. Repulsed by 
Germany, he sought to raise up France, to bind 
her sores, and renew a right spirit within her. 
Like his great forerunners, he called for a king 
in Israel ; a king to impose on his people a new 
discipline and a new ideal, to build their founda- 
tions on wisdom, earnestness, submission, justice. 
" Democracy has no discipline, and no moral 
ideal to impose. Children, left to their own 

1 For instance, Isaiah viii. 



192 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 

devices, will not educate each other." 1 It may 
be that the only fruitful discipline comes from 
within, is not forced upon us from without, but 
so thought no longer the ex-Democrat of 1848. 
Germany still haunted him. He would fain have 
reconstituted France in the image of her con- 
queror, as a mighty kingdom, governed by a 
strong provincial aristocracy, kept in respect by 
the fear of the throne. " The victory of Germany 
was the victory of the man who is full of rever- 
ence, careful, attentive, methodical, over slapdash 
and hap-hazard. ... It is the victory of Science 
and Reason. But it is also the victory of the 
feudal idea, the victory of the historic right of 
kings." 

Such was not the mind of the French. There 
are two great tendencies in modern politics. 
The first, ever more and more predominant, is 
jealous above all of the greatest happiness of 
the greatest number, preoccupied by the rights 
of individuals and their liberty ; and such, for 
a hundred years, has been the trend of Liberal 
France. The second establishes a priori a 
providential order, sacrifices hecatombs of indi- 
viduals to the attainment of certain abstract aims, 
and is content if the sweat of a multitude permit 
the nobler lives of a chosen few, and so increase, 

1 R4forme % &c, p. 66- 



THE WAR— RENAN AS PROPHET 193 



little by little, the intellectual capital of the 
race. Which of these twain is the true end of 
humanity? We may not know. The obscure 
soul of the universe finds, perchance, its expres- 
sion in either. 

At least it is certain that, on the morrow of 
the war, Renan was convinced of the efficacy of 
the aristocratic ideal. Full of fervour, he pre- 
sented himself at the elections of 1871. He was 
again rejected. He took his defeat to heart ; the 
sense of his uselessness in the hour of need 
appears to have overwhelmed him. His desperate 
struggle with the impossible altered the natural 
gentleness of his nature. Condemned to look on, 
impotent, he beheld the most cruel of his fears 
come true. The Prussians were still round Paris 
when, on the 18th March, '71, the capital, de- 
lirious with famine fever, broke out into the 
Commune. The barricades were up in the 
streets ; blood ran in rivers ; all the old mad 
dreams and hopes and hallucinations of '48, all 
the atrocity of excessive reprisals, all the endless 
sequel of hate and wrong, rose, like bloody froth, 
to the surface of the troubled nation. Renan's 
heart broke then, I think. The lees of a harsh 
disgust for life shrivelled the lips that hitherto 
had only spoken golden words. Like Zachary, 
he abandoned Juda and Israel ; both had betrayed 

N 



194 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



him. He shook the dust of the city from his 
feet ; he broke in twain his shepherd's staff ; and 
the name of the staff was Fraternity. 

Beside the Thing that Is, beside the real fact — 
there exists the ideal fact, which ought to have 
taken place, but did not — 

" Look in my face — my name is Might-have-been." 

Were I writing not a biography, but a study in 
absolute psychology — were I writing for a public 
which could not match an ideal truth with its 
obvious irrefutable counterpart — it is here, I con- 
fess, that I might place the end of Ernest Renan. 
Something died in him then ; the Breton, I think. 
It is sure that in his despair he would fain have 
died altogether, knowing that it is sometimes well 
that one man should perish to redeem the people. 
"If ever I have wished to be a Senator, it was 
chiefly because I saw there a fair occasion for a 
violent death." Let us then imagine him, like 
his own Antistius, a victim to the strife of the 
ideal with base reality. In some Parisian street, 
full of March sunshine, riddled with shot and 
shell, behold him mounted on the great barricade 
of beams and flagstones. With the light of the 
Sacred Mount on his face, he delivers undismayed 
the message of a free spirit. But hark, a brief 



THE WAR— RENAN AS PROPHET 195 



explosion, a burst of flame and smoke ! Struck 
at once in heart and head, slain by the splinter of 
a Prussian obus, and by a stone thrown by the 
people of Paris, the prophet falls. So might 
have ended Ernest Renan. 



CHAPTER VI 

THE £LITE 

T3UT Renan did not die. He merely took 
the train for Versailles, a disenchanted 
emigre of the Commune. It was the end of 
April. The stately Park of Le Notre was at its 
rarest, — a greenness in desolation, a hope in 
abandonment, such as perchance the world con- 
tains not elsewhere. All through the month 
of May, M. Renan wandered to and fro under 
the tender leaves of the stately alleys, beside the 
straight waters full of flowering weeds, where the 
gummy scent of the poplar is fresh on the air. 
There are few lonelier spots than may be dis- 
covered in that forsaken pleasure ground : Renan 
made it his habitual phrontisterion. Deprived of 
his books, separated from his work, he mused 
on the melancholy of human destiny. The old 
thoughts that, thirty years ago, he had revolved 
in endless meditations under the limes of Issy, 
visited him again. Fragments of Herder and 

Hegel and Malebranche rose to his lips. Twas 

196 



THE &LITE 



197 



an endless conversation between the different 
lobes of his brain. An echo of this long lonely 
soliloquy has been preserved to us in the Philoso- 
phic Dialogues. 

We appreciate the violence of a storm by the 
ravage which it leaves behind it. Compare this 
book with St Paul or The Apostles \ and you have 
the measure of Renan's profound and embittered 
disappointment - — a disappointment which em- 
braced not his own country only but his enemy's, 
and the two main conceptions of human society ; 
since the peaceful democracy of France appeared 
a Commune unchained, shooting its hostages ; 
while the military aristocracy of Germany was 
revealed as a " handful of aristocrats, urging the 
placable populations to the slaughter." Neither 
these savage iconoclasts, nor those arrogant 
uhlans full of oaths, were fit to be the instru- 
ments of the Ideal. What was the future of 
society? How should the kingdom of God be 
brought to pass ? 

Like Boethius, composing in prison his Con- 
solations of Philosophy, amid the ruins of his 
world ; like Condorcet, writing his Progress of 
the Human Mind, in hiding during the Reign 
of Terror ; Renan, from his avenue of Versailles, 
with Paris flaming on the horizon, sent forth 
his soul to seek a solution of this apparent 



198 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



anarchy of things. His Philosophic Dialogues 
show a change of attitude rather than a change 
of mind — few of us change much at bottom after 
five-and-twenty. His old ideas still guide him : — 

1. God does not proceed by special provi- 
dences. 

2. The universe fulfils, unconscious, a divine 
destiny with which, from the beginning, it was 
big. 

3. One day, God, as yet inarticulate, shall come 
into conscious being. 

4. Every disinterested effort makes for the 
little residue of excellence which, for ever ac- 
cumulating, goes to shape the Divine Idea. 

To these leading themes he adds two pre- 
dominant motifs^ not new in his philosophy, but 
developed out of all recognition. They are : — 

5. The theory of the elect ; and 

6. The suggestion of Conditional Immortality ; 
both of them, as a fact, an ingenious application 
of the Evolutionist Theory : the Survival of 
the Fittest. 

In sight of the magnificent arson of Paris, 
Renan assumed it improbable that the Kingdom 
of God would arrive by Democracy. In a 
mood of bitter reaction he reiterates with em- 
phasis a conviction which long had lain at the 
back of his mind, namely, that the masses do 



THE ELITE 



not count, are a mere bulk of raw material out 
of which, drop by drop, the essence is extracted 
— the rare essence, the one thing needful, which, 
whether as Truth, Beauty, Self-sacrifice, or Genius, 
goes to make the Ideal. Wherefore, then, cum- 
ber ourselves with the education of the masses ? 
Let them think as they please — if they think. 
What matter the opinions of millions of fools? 
Why trouble with difficult speculations the un- 
developed brains which were not made to hold 
them ? Is not the average man ephemeral as the 
May fly, here to-day, gone to-morrow without a 
trace, wholly eliminated from the Universe? 
Such as these are not born to know, are not born 
to have power, are not born to govern. But, 
alas, they are born to transgress, to revolt, born 
to immolate the Higher to the Lower, and 
continually to crucify their Redeemer. If not 
for their own sake, then for ours, and for the 
dim-descried and distant goal of things, let us 
put the masses within harness and drive them 
whither we will, well within bounds, kept under a 
yoke of gold and iron ! 

The peculiar pride of the priest rings in these 
theories, and still more in what follows, sinister 
with odd reminiscences of Inquisition racks and 
stakes. In an extraordinary symbol Renan 
imagines that the advance of Chemistry and 



200 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



the arts of war may one day place in the 
hands of a superior order means, hitherto un- 
imagined, of mastering the many. Plato also 
had dreamed of the Tyrant - Sage, the man 
who should unite political with philosophic 
authority. 

" Unless those who govern States be serious 
philosophers the perfect State will never see the 
light," runs the theme of the Republic. " Author- 
ity must be confided to those who think little of 
authority, to men of science and philosophers 
pursuing a more than mortal aim." And the 
Athenian had already propounded a system of 
social selection by which the most gifted, most 
temperate, strongest and wisest of a nation should 
be raised from the body of the people into a 
superior caste, entrusted with supreme power. 
... The outburst of anarchy, of simple instincts, 
which defaced the end of the Franco-Prussian 
war, revealed how little power over a people 
has the small class of free, enlightened spirits. 
Renan looked on in a melancholy too deep for 
tears ; and he too murmured — " Instinct would 
play the tyrant ; we must find a stronger tyrant 
to put Instinct in chains." So he came to dream 
of his caste of Tyrant-Sages, having at their 
disposal an authentic Hell, " not without the 
limits of biology," the product of, as yet, un- 



THE ELITE 



20I 



dreamed-of discoveries in Chemistry and Balistic 
Science. The philosopher then would not refute 
the barbarian, but annihilate him on the first 
threat of insurrection. Against such authority, 
after one or two unfortunate attempts, there 
could be no possibility of rebellion. An 61ite 
of intelligent beings would govern the world 
for good ; and the whole force of Humanity, 
concentrated in a syndicate of demi-gods, would 
hasten the advent of perfect Reason. Sombre 
imaginings, unworthy of that liberal spirit ! 
How should the world be saved by a false 
principle ? Perish even the tyranny of the best ! 
But the Reign of Terror of the Commune had 
jangled out of tune the sweet bells of Renan's 
harmony. For one moment of discord, he sought 
to meet injustice with its own arms and to attain 
a noble end by infamous means. The conception, 
harsh, false, profound, was worthy of the echo it 
found in the most singular brain of our time. 
The Prussian, Nietzsche, read of M. Renan's 
Dcevas and dreamed of the Uebermensch, of the 
super-human master whose motto, worthy of 
Prussia, reads : — Might is Right. 

As for us, we will hold rather (with Emerson) 
that the demi-gods must go ere God shall appear. 
Let us diffuse our light rather than concentre its 
life-giving rays. . . . Reflect, M. Renan, in what 



202 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



peril you place the great age-long structures of 
Truth, Beauty, Wisdom, Civilization, by giving 
them too narrow a base. . . . Once I was talking 
to an eminent anarchist, a being kind and wise as 
M. Renan's Dcevas : — 

" We object to moderate fortunes," said he : 
" We admit millionaires. Our ideal would be the 
concentration of the wealth of the nation in a 
dozen pockets. . . . There would be only a dozen 
heads to fall." . . . 

And ere now the Titans have fallen. The 
Tyrant-Sage might fall ! Suppose that by some 
deep-plotted combination the mass should arise 
and murder the demi-gods in their sleep ! 
Suppose that — owing, perhaps, to an imperfect 
sterilization of their instruments of torture — 
an epidemic should prevail among the Dcevas ? 
Science, Truth, Power, Civilization would dis- 
appear at one fell swoop ! No, dream for dream, 
play for play, give us the pretty chimaera of '48 : 
Let us ennoble the barbarians ! 

Meanwhile, dreaming not only of Hell but 
of Heaven, the sad philosopher tried to invent 
a less redoubtable conpensation for Virtue and 
Wisdom. They do not meet their reward on 
earth. Lo, their homes are burned and pillaged, 
a cruel enemy slays their sons, and a brother 
arises to stab them from behind ! Yet in sinu 



THE ELITE 



203 



meo est haec spes reposita ; the just shall not 
perish ! The Elect shall see God ! Those who 
have contributed to the fund of the Universe 
their atom of disinterested thought or feeling 
shall receive, in exchange for the imperishable 
spark which they emit, a part in the eternity 
of the World-Soul. Eye hath not seen, tongue 
may not tell, how that due return shall be 
rendered unto them. But they shall be a part 
of the consciousness of the Over-Soul. And when 
the Divine shall become at last all-perfect and 
all-powerful, every particle of that unimaginable 
Being shall thrill, irradiate with life at once 
separate and blended, at once individual and 
general, at once a Soul and God. 



PART IV 



CHAPTER I 



THE ANTICHRIST 

IN this crisis of his life, Renan returned to 
his work with new ardour, disgusted with 
politics. The professional Discourager's is a 
melancholy business, and it is sad to be in 
the right against the illusions of one's country. 
Renan had tried to point out the reasons for 
the superiority of Prussia ; he had tried to make 
his country accept a discipline and an ideal. He 
had worn, as it were, on his shoulders the yoke of 
Jeremiah ; 1 he had sat on the temple-steps and 
cried to the people ; but they had not listened. 
The task of his own life, after all, was the quest 
of Truth. Let Martha be busied with appearances : 
one thing alone is needful ; and they who choose 
the better part sit in long contemplation at the 
feet of the Eternal Realities. 

1 See a remarkable conversation recorded in Goncourfs Journal 
under the date 18 April 1871. Renan says, in substance — " I 
am disgusted with the lack of courage of the Deputies of Paris. 
They should parade the streets and harangue the people group 
by group. If I had been elected I would have done so — had I 
worn on my shoulders the yoke of Jeremiah." 

207 



208 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



The German invasion, with its terrible sequels, 
had proved to our sage that brute force is still, 
alas, the mistress of the material world, leading 
it whither she listeth ; that, in the conduct of 
events, the enlightened portion of humanity — 
the disciples of reason — have little influence, 
scant importance, and no true cohesion among 
themselves. A Mommsen, and a Strauss, and a 
Wagner, had each in turn revealed the soul of a 
Prussian corporal, and a view of practical politics 
quite unmodified by their proficiency in History, 
Philosophy, or Art. Europe was not yet in the 
hands of an international Elite. Renan sighed 
at the narrowness of broad minds, went into his 
study, and turned to the Past, since the Present 
would none of him. 

His own mind was the broadest of his age, and 
therefore the least passionate. He was incapable 
of taking a side, accepting a limit to the laws 
of reason. If Truth spoke from the mouth of 
an opponent, he was eager with his unqualified 
assent. In his rare affirmations he never forgot 
that things have always their unseen side, which 
may possibly contradict all that we should predi- 
cate from those surfaces within our range of 
vision. For the human eye — and the mind's 
eye also — is so constructed that it cannot see 
every face of an object at the same time. Renan, 



THE ANTICHRIST 209 



however, saw them so immediately one after the 
other, as in a series of rapid dissolving views, that 
his vision of things was never simple, but blended, 
as it were, from a set of contraries. No aspect of 
Truth engrossed him so entirely as to exclude 
an instinctive divination of its opposite. A sort 
of contranitency, — if we may use the word 
— an elastic reaction against pressure, which 
became the main quality of his mind, assured 
him that the truth of one thing does not 
necessarily establish the falsehood of its apparent 
negation. The air through which we all see 
the world is in fact a sort of vivid prism, iri- 
descent, opalescent, only habit has dulled our 
sense of it. But Renan kept in his mind's eye 
unimpaired that intellectual iridescence which 
illuminates the inner vision. The truth of his 
most considered assertions is qualified with subtle 
reservations. And the unity of his mind, excep- 
tionally sincere and veracious, is made of a 
thousand diversities in fusion, as a painter mixes 
his white from a medley of many colours. 

Hence inherent contradictions : a love of giv- 
ing himself the lie. Hence many a disconcerting 
strange predella painted underneath his sacred 
pictures. In no book is this so marked as in 
the book of these years : The Antichrist. He 
cannot contrast the terrible hieratic Christ of 

O 



2io LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



the Apocalypse with the tender Elder Brother 
of the Gospel stories, but he exclaims : " Who 
knows ? The image of the Gospel may be false. 
Jesus may have been the centre of a group more 
pedantic, more scholastic, nearer to the Scribes 
and Pharisees than the Evangelists would have 
us think." He cannot consider the obscurity 
which envelops the end of St Paul without re- 
flecting that the convert may be converted more 
than once : the disenchanted saint may have 
passed over to the creed of Ecclesiastes and the 
Sceptics. Convinced that he had given his life 
for a dream, Paul may have wandered despair- 
ing, resigned, on some Iberian shore, aware of 

the nothingness of life Then, in a 

twinkling, the ironic little transformation scene 
flashes out of sight, and leaves us face to face 
with a soberer vision of the Past. 

None of these brief glimpses into the interior 
of a thinker's mind are so cruel as the sacrilegious 
page wherein Renan ascribes to Nero, tearing 
their last veils from the Virgin Martyrs in the 
arena, the invention of a new order of beauty : 
the supreme grace of Christian modesty. Such 
pages bear too clear the disfiguring hall-mark 
of the dilettante. In fact Renan, after 1871, 
retraversed more seriously the crisis which had 
menaced his moral health after the disasters of 



THE ANTICHRIST 211 



1848. A second journey to Italy in 1875 led 
him again to the feet of his old enchantress, 
visible beauty — again he heard her whisper — 

" Flede ramos, arbor alta^ 
Tensa laxa viscera^ 
Et lentescat rigor tile 
Quem dedit nativitas? 

The fourth volume of the Origins of Chris- 
tianity is in some sense the masterpiece of the 
series. It is the record of the most memorable 
struggle between the hostile ideals of moral 
and material perfection, written at a time when 
that same struggle was a constant preoccupa- 
tion of the author's spirit. In his profound 
disappointment with Life there were moments 
when Art, and Art only, seemed precious and 
imperishable in Renan's eyes ; when the spiritual 
enthusiasm of arid Palestine appeared, after all, 
a poor thing to him compared with the divine 
and innocent grace of Attic beauty. He had 
given his life to the Holy Land, to the worship 
of holiness ; there were hours when he half re- 
gretted that he had not offered it to Hellas. 
There are hours in most lives, perhaps, when 
that which creates and represents appears more 
satisfying, more positive, than that which suggests 
and inspires ; when the frieze of the Parthenon 



212 LIFE OF ERNEST REN AN 



strikes us as more real than the shadow of the 
Cross on Calvary. And yet the Galilean conquers. 

In the first century of Christianity, its history 
shifts gradually from Asia Minor to imperial 
Rome. Two Romes were soon in presence. St 
Paul in prison was weaving, no longer the coarse 
Cilician tissue of his loom, but the spiritual 
fabric of the future, while Nero, the circus rider, 
the aesthetic athlete, worshipped the art and the 
splendour of the decadent Greeks. How Renan 
makes us see them both : the prophet, illumin- 
ated by suffering ; and Nero, " the poor young 
man," whose deplorable taste in Art had so 
unfortunate an effect on his morals ; a mere 
Tenorino devoured by vanity, not wholly bad 
but wholly artificial, debased, of irritable nerves- — 
and entrusted with the government of a world. 
No less vivid are the portraits of Titus and 
Vespasian : serious military men, a little pro- 
vincial in tone and therefore all the more en- 
slaved by the elderly graces of the aristocratic 
Berenice. 

For life, brilliance, irony, force, this volume is 
unmatched. But we miss the moral charm, the 
rare deep fraternal kindness of St Paul and 
the Apostles. 

" Perhaps our race alone 1 is capable of re- 

1 The Antichrist, p. 102, 



THE ANTICHRIST 213 



alising virtue without faith, of blending hope and 
doubt inextricably together. An hour strikes 
in the life of European men of genius when 
they agree with Epicurus. . . . Whilst continu- 
ing their task with ardour, they feel a chill dis- 
relish for life creep over them. Victorious, they 
wonder whether the cause for which they fought 
were worth so many sacrifices, and, whilst con- 
tinuing to push the battle, many of them admit 
that wisdom begins on the day when they are 
content to contemplate Nature and enjoy her. 
There is, perhaps, scarce one self-sacrificing 
person, priest or nun, who, at fifty, has not 
deplored a vow which they continue to observe. 
A spice of scepticism appears to us integral in good 
breeding. We like to hear the just man say : 
1 Virtue, thou art but a name ! ' The essential 
quality of distinction is this faculty of soaring 
up and dominating our own beliefs, of rising 
superior to the cause for which we are content to 
give our lives, of smiling at our own most stringent 
effort. And we love our heroes the better when 
we watch them sink a moment by the road- 
side, aware of the vanity of absolute convic- 
tions." 

What a disenchantment rings in these accents 
of crystal and silver ! It is well, indeed, that 
advancing years should take from us something of 



214 



LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



the substance of our personality — that we should 
grow wider, fainter, and, as it were, diaphanous : 
mere cobwebs to catch the grace of Heaven. 
But such a diminution of fibre as Renan shows 
us at this moment is nothing less than a moral 
malady. Let us not hold victory too cheap ! 
Our heroes do well to be victorious, for they 
continue to live in their triumph ; their dead 
hands mould and modify us from the other 
side the grave ; their effort has shaped our future. 
And influence is a sort of immortality. 



CHAPTER II 



THE ORIGINS OF CHRISTIANITY: 
THE PHILOSOPHERS 

' I A HE incapacity to affirm does not imply the 

incapacity to choose and resolve. The 

least consistent in theory, in practice Renan was 

the most persistent of men. He followed his 

meandering paths to the very goal He was 

willing to admit that all is vanity ; but he 

acted as though nothing were so important as the 

finishing of the task he had found to his hand. 

His scepticism never paralyzed the continuity 

of his effort : a hermetic compartment separated 

his intelligence and his moral self. 

Nil expedit . . . Laboremus I Our task is 

of no importance, yet give us, O Lord, our 

daily task ! Vanity of Vanities ! But let us 

finish the fifth and sixth volumes of the Origins 

of Christianity ! . . . Without a lapse, without a 

pause, this solid and inveterate worker brought 

the considerable sequence to a close. As we 

have said, this great piece of history is also, 

in some sort, an autobiography. The Anti- 
cs 



216 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



christ reflects Renan's discouragement, his dilet- 
tantism. The Christian Church and Marcus 
Aurelius show us a Renan reconciled with 
democracy, confident in the gradual ascent of 
man, aware that the greatest cataclysms do not 
really interrupt the imperceptible progress of the 
world. 

Truths had a knack of flashing their contraries 
into the eyes of our philosopher. In the Philosophic 
Dialogues he had elaborated his doctrine of the 
Mite, of a world saved by the tyranny of a privileged 
circle of adepts. And so, in the last volumes 
of the Origins he shows us the peril of an aristo- 
cracy of science, all the danger and the sterility of 
the oligarchic theory. For, at one moment, a 
chimerical, intellectual syndicate attempted to 
govern Christianity : the Church was only saved 
by breaking the yoke of the Gnostics. Rome and 
the world were entrusted, at one moment, to the 
rule of a philosopher and a saint : and Renan shows 
us the intimate miseries of the reign of a Marcus 
Aurelius. That wise emperor only succeeded 
in giving a veneer of hypocrisy to the evil forces 
which raged around him, and which he refused to 
recognise. May it not be that Stoicism and Gnos- 
ticism perished for lack of a public? That antiquity 
was misguided on seeking to specialise Truth 
and Virtue, in neglecting the education of the 



THE ORIGINS OF CHRISTIANITY 217 



lower classes ! " I speak for one in a thousand," 
said Basilides ; " the rest are dogs and swine." . . . 
" Suffer the little children to come unto me," said 
He who spake through the mouths of babes 
and sucklings. May it not be that the brain 
can not work without the pulse of the heart, that 
Wisdom cannot be nourished without the warm 
current of a live fraternity ? 

With the doctrine of the Gnostics, as mere 
doctrine, Renan had little fault to find. The 
metaphysics of Basilides forecast the main ideas 
of Hegel. His polytheistic cosmogony covers, 
but does not conceal, a philosophic system. . . . 
Life is the gradual development of a series of 
seeds or germs contained in the original matter 
of the Universe. Filiation is the great secret : 
each organism, abstract or concrete, produces its 
successor and dies. The sum of the aspiration 
of Humanity makes for righteousness. The re- 
compense of the individual is Rest : complete 
absorption into the substance of Deity, a divine 
unconsciousness, a tiiyuXn ciyvoia. Man passes, 
but the Universe remains, and progresses. The 
Residue of Perfection is secured by the Frontier- 
Spirit. The Frontier-Spirit is a mystic inter- 
planetary influence which carries the current of 
Being from the domain of pure spirit into the 
domain of pure matter, thus mingles either and 



218 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



thus strengthens each. This free, starry secret 
of a life continually renewed, this Breath from 
Over-the-Border, this psQopiov wsufiu, answers, in 
Renan's own philosophy, to the Spirit of Love. 
Renan could have no intellectual quarrel with 
the Gnostics. 

What he feared and loathed in them was their 
sterile pride. Woe to the Truth which crystal- 
lises too soon ! These thinkers, who imagined 
themselves to form a close syndicate of Truth 
for the sole use of the initiate, begat a vanity 
fatal to progress. Their wisdom was a system 
for solitaries. Had it endured it must have 
caused at last the establishment of a society not 
unlike the castes of India. The Gnostic Saint 
was already a Buddhist in posse. 

The Church fought tooth and nail against this 
hermetic aristocracy. For the Catholic ideal was 
the good of the masses ; her holiest instinct to im- 
prove the average man whilst diminishing the sum 
of his sufferings. Her means were Faith and Works. 
She preached Hope in the Man of Sorrows, 
Trust in the Beyond. She needed no meta- 
physical system : the Primitive Church had little 
or no theology. It is certain that Jesus, and his 
immediate disciples, neglected that part of the 
human mind which desires to know. 

In their house Science had no mansion. They 



THE ORIGINS OF CHRISTIANITY 219 



spoke to the heart, to the imagination, not to 
the mind. Christianity came not to satisfy 
our curiosity, but to console the unhappy, to 
stimulate the moral sense, to teach men to say 
"Our Father," to bind them together in a brotherly 
bond. In more things than one, the Church and 
Marcus Aurelius pursued the same ideal. But 
Christianity counted on the masses, the Stoic 
Philosophers upon the Few. As we know, the 
Galilean vanquished. And yet, after her victory, 
the Church was compelled to assimilate something 
of the principles she had conquered. You cannot 
say to the world at large, Be ye perfect ! Chris- 
tianity, in her turn, felt the necessity of an elite — 
of a Chosen Few set apart to practice a superior 
morality. Without diminishing the broad, general 
movement of her main current, Catholicism began 
to reserve, as in some peaceful backwater, the 
clearer, holier space of the conventual life. To 
the Monk and the Nun, it was said : Be ye per- 
fect ! And the average churchman, soiled with 
the dust of the world, struggled content, knowing 
that somewhere, out of sight, the Gospel was not 
preached in vain. 

In demonstrating the secret of Christian in- 
fluence Renan fell again, to some extent, under 
the charm which had ruled his early years. Not 
that ever again he was to say Credo ! Faith 



220 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 

remained to him a fountain sealed, a garden 
enclosed — a garden at which one slants regretful 
glances from the sun-beaten steep highway. . . . 
It was the beauty of Catholicism which fascinated 
Ernest Renan, which appealed to his aesthetic 
faculty, which revived the souvenir of his pious 
youth. His mind still accepted a modified 
Pantheism as the most reasonable solution of 
the problem of the Infinite. But, more and more, 
his fancy harked back to the conception of a 
Providence exterior to the universe, of a sym- 
pathetic intimate spectator of the struggles of 
the soul. " Man is always more anthropomorphic 
than he thinks/' said Goethe. As old age steals 
on, leaving our brain intact, nay, enriched by the 
experience and thought of our maturity, threaten- 
ing the springs of life only, the craving for a 
continuation of our activity beyond the grave is 
natural to man. More than once the ex-pupil 
of St Sulpice will demand of the Unknown God 
some survival of the holier instincts of our nature, 
some possibility of progress after death. " Thou 
art too resigned, dear Master ! " he cries to Marcus 
Aurelius 1 ; "if it be true that even those among 
us who have lived in communion with Deity be 
extinguished for ever, then of a truth we have 
the right to complain. If this world have not 

1 Marcus Aurelius, p. 268. 



THE ORIGINS OF CHRISTIANITY 221 



its counterpart Beyond, how shall he who has sacri- 
ficed himself to Right and Truth die contented ? 
No, such an one has the right to blaspheme ! 
Heaven has taken advantage of his good faith. 
Why has Heaven implanted in his heart instincts 
of rectitude to which he falls a victim ? Why 
should the ungodly triumph? Is it he after all 
who sees clear? If there be no Beyond, accursed 
be the gods who place so ill their favours ! . . . 
I am content that the Future remain an enigma. 
But if there be no Future, then this world of ours 
is a hideous trap for Virtue. Mind ye, I crave 
not the desire of the vulgar. What I ask is 
neither to witness the downfall of the ungodly, 
nor to enjoy the interest of my good behaviour. 
No selfish reward ! Only to be, only to exist 
in relation to the light, only to continue the 
thought begun on earth. . . . To know more 
and more, to enjoy the truth at last, to behold 
the Triumph of the Good which I have loved ! " 

More than once at the close of his history 
of the Origins of Christianity \ Renan asked him- 
self, What should be the future of the Catholic 
Church? He saw one portion doomed to cor- 
ruption, for the letter killeth. The Church will 
resist the gradual growth of Truth, will heap 
dogma on dogma, invent miracle after miracle. 
Lourdes and Tilly-sur-Seules will not save the 



222 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 

Church. No Papal Bull will make the sun stand 
still in heaven — B pur si muove ! But there 
shall be a remnant. Abandoning the excesses 
of supernaturalism, Christianity once more shall 
worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The 
freer thought of Catholicism will find a new force 
in its combination with the Liberal forms of 
Protestantism, with enlightened Judaism, and 
Idealist Philosophy. From these shall spring 
a new Church which, in its turn, for its time, shall 
serve the progress of the Soul, no less abundantly, 
no less vitally, than those elder altars which it 
shall inevitably supersede. 



CHAPTER III 

SOUVENIRS 

THERE comes an hour to all objective minds 
— too occupied with the world and its 
great problems to keep a constant register 
of their own sensations — an hour when they 
recognise that they are growing old. This 
revelation came to Ernest Renan in 1875, one 
twentieth of September, towards the evening, as 
he watched the dews thicken on the vineyards 
of Ischia, and the white sea deepen in tone as 
the light grew less intense. He was but two- 
and-fifty years of age. Rheumatism, not the 
weight of years, stiffened and impeded his gait, 
affected his heart, took the elasticity from his 
veins and muscles. He had grown old ten years 
too soon. With his habitual mild serenity, he 
recognised the fact without impatience — with a 
movement of thankfulness, rather, towards all 
the benign influences which had shaped his life. 
Even so, long ago, on the banks of the Grau, 

Marcus Aurelius had let his mind turn piously 

223 



LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



towards the tutors of his early years. Renan, 
likewise, passed a happy hour in casting up his 
debt to each of these. That September evening 
he wrote but a few pages. The idea of writing 
some record of his childhood was born, however, 
into his reflective mind. 

Five years later, M. Quellien asked our sage to 
preside at the annual banquet of the Bretons in 
Paris : the Diner Celtique. Renan agreed to be 
the permanent president of this humble festivity : 
a reunion of Celtic men of letters held in the 
purlieus of the Western Railway Station. And 
this accident helped to revive in his heart the 
love of his native place. " Quellien prolonged 
my life by a good ten years," cried Renan. " I 
felt fifty years slip from my shoulders as I refound 
myself in contact with my earliest memories." , . . 
The historian's peculiar curiosity, which was ever 
so responsive a fibre in him, began to vibrate in 
answer to this image of the Past. " I had seen the 
primitive world ! " It was a world of immense 
moral solidity, but filigreed all over on the surface 
with poetic Pagan superstitions, — it was, we may 
say, a menhir, thick with harebells. Now the 
great block had fallen out of place, and the 
flowers with it. With every year Brittany be- 
comes more and more a mere agglomeration of 
western departments — an integral part of France. 



SOUVENIRS 



225 



But Renan could remember the royal and Catholic 
Brittany of Charles the Tenth. 

Renan's special gift as a historian was his art of 
divining the origin of things. There was some- 
thing singularly primitive and archaic at the root 
of his supple, and apparently decadent, imagina- 
tion. This vision of Celtic Brittany interested 
him, even as the wanderings of the Beni-Israel in 
Chaldea, or the small Christian communities on 
the shores of Nero's Asia Minor. His mother's 
tales, his own first memories, put him in touch 
with a society, pious, primitive, simple, such as he 
loved to delineate. In his own childhood, he had 
contemplated a page of the Origins of Contem- 
porary France. This page he wrote one day, and 
treated it as Taine, for all his genius, could never 
have done. 

A meditative moralist, a student of history, Renan 
was no less a man of feeling. Save Rousseau or 
Samuel Johnson, no writer's peculiar temperament 
has been destined so greatly to influence modern 
times. He had his own magic by which he 
knew how to revive all the tender, confused, rudi- 
mentary forces which blend in a heart of fifteen : 
love of home, unconscious love, awakening 
thought, the first pursuit of Truth, the first 
elusive escape of Faith. All these rule and 
inspire the Souvenirs d'Enfance et de Jeunesse, 

P 



226 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



On the threshold of old age, the philosopher 
turned and cast a last long lingering glance 
at the days of his childhood, before the Angel 
of Knowledge had troubled the waters of his 
heart. He heard the drowned church bells of 
the town of Ys peal again through all the waves 
that have gone over them — obstinate carillons, 
still convoking his renegade thoughts to a divine 
service long since silent. The priests of Treguier 
rose again on his inner eye. He saw the haggard 
silhouette of the Bonhomme Systeme, and the 
dazed melancholy figure of the flax-crusher's 
daughter. He saw, in a more delicate aureole, 
the little girls he had played with before his first 
communion, and whose smile had haunted him 
ever since. Most men begin with the heart and 
end with the mind. Renan began with the mind, 
and never thought so much of Love as after fifty. 
The women and the priests, to whom he owed 
his breeding, had bequeathed him the sentimental 
turn of their imagination ; and, as he grew old, 
this trait showed clearer — as our likeness to our 
forbears comes out with our grey hairs — in the 
oddest contrast to the sceptical attitude of his 
mind. As we climb down the slope of later life, the 
world of our fifteenth year, long since cast aside 
as the thing of a child, revisits us, and revives, 
singularly fresh and dear. And in the best-filled 



SOUVENIRS 



227 



life, there are hours in which we are glad to 
amuse ourselves again with the old vain toys 
which we broke a life-time ago. 

Thus, nearing sixty, Renan sought to compress 
into an hour the aroma of all his early life ; to 
evoke, in the twinkling of an eye, all he had once 
loved so much, so long ago. The Souvenirs 
are neither an autobiography nor a confession : 
they are, in Goethe's phrase, " Truth and Poetry " 
— a long conversation with remembrance, born of 
our instinctive pity for all that dies with us when 
we perish, of our instinctive wish that something, 
at least, of the heart of us survive. . . . 

No man writing of himself was ever more 
natural, more simple. Renan's egotism is so 
devoid of display, so mere an outpouring, that 
it seldom irritates and never wearies. He takes 
us into his confidence. He sits down beside us, 
as it were, and beguiles us with his Past ; as we 
show our children a picture book, to pass the 
time and cultivate their imagination. 

The Souvenirs took the world by storm. 
They possess that lyric note of personal utterance 
which the public prizes in a man already famous 
And what shall we say of their success in Renan's 
old home? Disraeli's novels are not more elo- 
quent of the " Semitic secret " than these souvenirs 
of the prerogative of the Celt. The writer him- 



228 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



self is regarded as a mere epitome of his race. 
He is eloquent with the treasured silence of 
generations, rich with their economies of thought 
and imagination — but not other than they. The 
clear green springs ; the misty skies ; the moors 
dotted with menhirs, and sprinkled with the silver 
gleam of trembling lady birches ; the Atlantic 
breakers rolling on the coast against the great 
granite promontories ; the pious, stolid, fisher 
folk ; the women of Ar-Mor, demure in their 
black gowns and coifs of white ; the priests of 
Treguier ; the skyward sweep of the cathedral 
steeple — all these animate and inspire their faith- 
ful spokesman. These are responsible for the 
genius of Ernest Renan, and his glory reflects 
on them. . . . Such, at least, is the refrain of the 
Souvenirs. 

In the middle of August 1884, Renan re- 
turned to Treguier. He had scarcely seen the 
place since he left it forty years before. He 
had doubtless dreaded the return. But he came 
back as the local prophet. Despite some natural 
opposition on the part of the ultra-Catholics, the 
author of the Souvenirs was received so warmly 
that he determined to spend a part of every year 
in his native clime. Near Lannion, and nearer 
Perros Guirec, he discovered a comfortable manor- 
house — Rosmapamon — which his children continue 



SOUVENIRS 



229 



to inhabit. It is a pleasant, long, low old house, 
standing among woods close to the sea. Thence 
the name and fame of Ernest Renan spread through 
the country side. The peasants and fisher folk, 
who treated him with a rustic familiarity never 
repulsed, were aware of the fame of the sage 
of Rosmapamon, though they knew not what 
had earned it. The women inclined to suppose 
him a Saint — " Cest un bien grand Saint, 
Monsieur ! " said one old dame, I believe, to M. 
Spronck. The men, seated in the tavern, swore 
that he was a great Republican. Quite lately 
there was a public fete at Treguier to inaugurate 
an inscription on M. Renan's natal house, at 
present the property of his children. On this 
occasion our philosopher was greatly extolled for 
his Republican principles. . . . Were they so 
much out of count, these simple people, in their 
definition of the greatest Religious Critic, the truest 
Liberal, after all, of Modern France ? 



CHAPTER IV 



ECCLESIASTES IN A DEMOCRACY 

/ T*HE Souvenirs cTEnfance et de Jeunesse 
■J* had appeared in 1883. They reflect 
the picturesque and emotional side of Renan — 
Celtic, Catholic in spite of all, and curious of 
the Past. Another view of his complex tempera- 
ment is given in a volume which came out a few 
months earlier : a translation of Ecclesiastes 
with an introduction. Here we see his dis- 
enchanted self, — modern, agnostic, dilettante. 

" The author of Ecclesiastes" says the trans- 
lator, " is the author of the Book of Job grown 
seven centuries older. His objurgations against 
God, his eloquent and terrible blasphemies, have 
sunk into the trick of a hopeless trifling. The 
patriarch has suffered a change into the man 
of letters about town. He has no longer the 
strength to be angry with the Eternal : Where 
is the use of it ? " 

After a great experience of human things, 

Ecclesiastes has lost his faith in progress. — 

230 



ECCLESIASTES IN A DEMOCRACY 231 



The world offers a succession of phenomena 
which repeat themselves without essential change. 
What has been, will be. The wheel of things 
revolves, and must revolve, ever in the same circle. 
Our attempts at reform and progress are mere 
chimseras. Nothing worth knowing is knowable. 
Man is hopelessly limited by his faculties as by 
his destiny. All is vanity ! The only wisdom is 
not to be unnecessarily miserable about that which 
it is certain we were never meant to alter. 

Such is the melancholy philosophy of Cohelet. 
" No man," says Renan, " was ever less of a 
pedant. The clearest view of a truth never 
prevents him from seeing, a second later, the 
contrary aspect of that truth in just as sharp 
relief. His disenchantment does not make him 
in the least out of temper with the conventions of 
society. In him, the motives for living are all 
slackened and relaxed ; but his lively taste for 
life and its pleasures remains unimpaired. He 
no longer seeks to explain the scheme of things, 
nor to invent symbols in which to incarnate 
a precise religion. He amuses himself rather 
with delightful philosophic vagaries. ' There is 
another evil under the sun ' (he might have said) 
— and haply is it the greatest of them all. And 
this is the presumption of spirit which seeks 
to explain the universe in a sentence four words 



232 



LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



long. Woe unto him who shall not contradict 
himself at least once a day." 

The soul of Ernest Renan animates this 
Ecclesiastes of 1882. The portrait is a living 
likeness. Only, save in quite his darkest hours, 
Renan would scarcely have agreed that the world 
revolves eternally in an unalterable circle. How- 
ever pessimistic, he was still a Liberal. Almost 
always he saw the course of the universe slowly 
spinning down the grooves of Time, in a spiral, 
imperceptibly advancing even when it appears 
to recede. If nothing be wholly good, nothing 
also is wholly harmful. " My philosophy," he 
wrote in the Souvenirs, " inclines me to believe 
that good and evil, pain and pleasure, the 
beautiful and the ugly, slide into one another as 
imperceptibly as the tints which blend on the 
neck of a dove." There is no Absolute — All is 
relative. Or if an absolute exist in the region of 
the infinite, we, by the constitution of our natures, 
are condemned to perceive only the relative. 
The Order of things is no Finality, " knowing 
what and why it worketh in a most exact order 
or law," but a sort of happy accident without 
purpose or precision. And yet — who knows ? 
From this fortuitous combination there may 
proceed the Conscient Soul, whose presentiment 
is deep implanted in our heart. The progress of 



ECCLESIASTES IN A DEMOCRACY 233 



the Universe is, perchance, the long and painful 
Advent of the unborn God. " Nothing proves 
that there exists a Soul of the Universe ; nothing 
proves the contrary. Let us deny nothing, affirm 
nothing. We may hope." 

In reading Mr Tollemache's " Recollections 
of Mark Pattison " I have been much struck by 
many similarities between his melancholy " Pis- 
gah-sights " (as Browning would have said) and 
Ernest Renan's. Both indeed were disenchanted 
men, both still under the emotional sway of a 
creed in which their reason had ceased to ac- 
quiesce. Pattison observed that the idea of Deity 
has now been " defecated to a pure transparency," 
and Renan might have used the phrase : yet each 
was haunted by a more personal religious Ideal, 
while for ever baffled by philosophical per- 
plexities. Only, in this baffling, Renan took, on 
the whole, a certain pleasure, such as robust con- 
stitutions find in walking against a wind, while 
Pattison's slighter nature shivered and dwindled 
in the blast Both inclined to imagine a conceiv- 
able survival of the soul, contingent on its progress 
in this mortal sphere ; and either would have 
defined this hoped-for after life — so dimly adum- 
brated, so faintly apprehended, — rather as a 
possible posthumous influence for good than as 
a renewal of our human personality ; and yet, 



234 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



each in softer hours, dreamed, half playfully, of 
his childhood's Paradise. " Shall I have my 
library in Heaven ? " queried the scholarly Rec- 
tor of Lincoln, and Renan, the dreamer, laid up 
stores of pleasant visions for the eternal night, 
as though he were half persuaded that, after 
death, he might still need an amusement. 

An optimist at heart, Renan did not despair. 
" This life of four days produces some enduring 
fruits. ... I can not suffer to hear our Humanity 
insulted — poor thing of grief, thrown like an 
orphan upon the earth, scarce sure of the morrow, 
which finds means, between the birth-throe and 
the death-agony, to invent art, science, virtue." 
Renan had, as he confessed, despite experience 
of the Dead Sea fruit, " a lively taste for the 
universe." He looked forward, though with but 
a moderate cheerfulness. He thought with Pat- 
tison that, when Reform has finished her perfect 
work, the world, destitute of originality and 
variety, will become a sort of universal China. 
He foresaw that everything tended towards 
Democracy, towards Socialism even, towards an 
Americanising of our frame of life, a prosperous 
vulgarity, repugnant to a man of taste. But 
after all, who knows ? A sort of modified 
Chicago may be a less insupportable condition 
of existence than we imagine. Pattison was 



ECCLESIASTES IN A DEMOCRACY 235 



too innately the Don, the College Man, to con- 
template such a change without a shudder. But 
Renan, who was a human being and a dreamer 
first and a scholar afterwards — mingled some 
indulgence and much curiosity with his personal 
distaste. " Who knows, the general commonness 
may guarantee the happiness of the Chosen 
Few ! American vulgarity would not have 
buried Giordano Bruno, nor persecuted Galileo " 
(Preface to Souvenirs). 

On this subject Renan has embodied his re- 
flections in a series of philosophical comedies, 
which he composed, during his autumn holidays 
in the Isle of Ischia in 1877 and in 1879, and 
which he completed later at Rosmapamon. The 
book appeared as a whole in 1888 under the 
title of Philosophical Dramas. Three of these 
tragi-comedies, Caliban, The Fountain of Youth, 
The Priest of Nemi, are priceless documents for 
the critic of Renan's character and opinions, 
which the fourth, The Abbess of fouarre, on the 
whole a regrettable performance, obscures from 
the height of its bad eminence. 

The dramas we have mentioned are chiefly 
concerned with the problems of Democracy. 
They show the attitude towards uncultured 
socialism of a Liberal Philosopher. Aristocratic 
by temperament and education, for no aristocracy 



236 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



is so close as the sacerdotal, Renan was by 
principle a sort of Socialist, or at least Republican, 
malgrt luL After the Commune, through fear of 
the tyranny of the mob, he had warmly advocated 
the restoration of the legitimate Bourbon. 1 After 
the stifling experience of the Ordre Moral, he 
had seen what a restoration of the Throne and 
Altar would really mean : the dominion of ortho- 
doxy, that is to say, tyranny plus hypocrisy, the 
most monstrous regimen of all. 

" I love Prospero (he writes in Caliban), but I 
do not love the men who would re-establish him 
upon the throne. Caliban, improved by power, is 
more to my liking. Caliban, after all, is more 
useful to us scholars than Prospero would be with 
the Jesuits for his wire-pullers. In the present 
circumstances, the Government of Prospero would 
be, not a renaissance, but a crushing-flat of all free 
intelligence. Let us keep Caliban ! " — that is to 
say, Democracy. Under all his airs of ironic 
aristocracy, Renan kept the staunchest sense of 
the rights of the people. He was indeed at heart 
more Radical, more anti-clerical, than he cared to 
appear. When Jules Ferry launched his famous 
Article VII., almost all cultured France deplored 
the system of petty religious persecution which it 
inaugurated : clerical colleges closed, monks and 

1 Rcforme intelleduelle et morale. 



ECCLESIASTES IN A DEMOCRACY 237 



nuns expelled from their pious homes, convents in- 
ordinately taxed. "A most illiberal persecution ! " 
assented Renan, "and, what is more . . . insufficient! 
I would not close a single clerical college : I would 
only debar the pupils of the Regular Orders from 
every public career." At heart, in his old age, 
Renan returned to the democratic point of view 
exhibited in his first social study, the " Future 
of Science." The vision is less brilliant, but 
it is not hopeless. Caliban (Democracy), the 
unformed, mindless brute, educated by his own 
responsibility, makes an adequate ruler after all, 
no worse, if not wiser, than those who went before. 
Prospero (the Aristocratic Principle, or, if we will, 
the Mind) accepts, not unwillingly, his own de- 
thronement from practical affairs for the sake of 
greater liberty in the intellectual life : for Caliban 
proves an effective policeman, and leaves his 
superiors the freest of hands in the laboratory. Ariel 
(the Religious Principle 1 ) learns at last not to give up 
the ghost at the faintest hint of change. Robuster, 
if less ethereal, he, too, flourishes in the service of 
Prospero under the external government of the 
many-headed Brute. The future of Ariel is in 
fact secured by the unconscious co-operation of 
Prospero and Caliban. Every great religion is 

1 Compare with The Tempest Isaiah xxix., where Jerusalem is 
figured under the symbolic name of Ariel, 



238 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



the result of some such fecund misunderstanding. 
Nor is the future of Science less secure. " In the 
Ledger of Knowledge every truth is added up, 
every error omitted. Error is sterile, essentially 
perishable." 1 Truth alone knows how to capitalise 
her vast, her continually multiplying resources, 
which, as it were at compound interest, increase 
from year to year. In spite of all, the only need- 
ful things are not destined to succumb : Religion 
and Knowledge are as imperishable as the world 
which they dignify. 

Thus, out of the depths, rises unvanquished the 
essential idealism of Ernest Renan. 

Faith and Science had ever occupied his mind. 
On the threshold of old age, his philosophy 
became aware of another great entity, of Love, 
which, up to the age of five-and-fifty or there- 
abouts, had appeared to him a personal accident, 
of keen interest doubtless to the individuals it 
concerned, but scarcely a problem, hardly an 
immense universal force such as Beauty, Virtue, 
Truth, or Faith. When we are old, we secretly 
prize that which we disregarded most in its due 
season. Love and the charm of woman took a 
great importance in the eyes of our philosopher, 
grown prematurely aged, the unwieldiest of mortals, 
the wittier Dr Johnson of Parisian society. There 

1 Preface to Feuilles D£tach{es. 



ECCLESIASTES IN A DEMOCRACY 239 



is something, we must own, a little grotesque in 
this tardy Cupid perched on the rim of Socrates' 
basket. Love as the interplanetary essence, the 
running music of the spheres binding all exis- 
tence in one harmony, Love the ps06ptov mev/ia 
may occupy the sage at any decade. And we 
are moved and pleased by the ageing scholar's 
recollection of the girlish faces which had bright- 
ened existence for him some forty years ago. 
But that were enough ; we did not desire the 
Abbesse de Jouarre ! 

" At Christmas we no more desire a rose " — 

And the rose, of an odd blue unhealthy-looking 
sort, takes to blooming in Renan's frostiest season. 

His life, as all who knew him can aver, was 
ever the life of a saint, and would appear of 
the purest, judged by the canons of any doctrine. 
Quaintly enough, he considered that this white 
apex of his gave him a singularly favourable 
point of view for scrutinising the nice enigmas 
of the heart. In the Abbesse of Jouarre he 
writes the apology of instinct. Chastity, says he, 
is often only another name for the merest social 
prudence : were the world to end to-morrow we 
should all abandon ourselves without remorse to 
our most passionate desires. His excuse must be 
that, in his peculiar mind, the most frivolous 



2 4 o LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



fantasies slide into philosophic symbols. ... In 
the course of the universe Renan descried two 
impelling forces — the gradual process which 
develops, and the rare divine capricious impulse 
of spontaneity, which, as with a leap and a bound, 
hurries on the slow progress of cosmic elabora- 
tion ; steps in, at difficult moments, like a god 
out of a machine ; suggests Speech to the bleat- 
ing and calling Bushmen ; makes the perplexed 
savage, as he notches his tally, dream of writing 
and arithmetic ; which, in fact, is continually inter- 
vening with the happiest effect, in the intermin- 
able evolution of the god from the sea-anemone. 
Love, in the eyes of Renan, was the constant 
manifestation of this force of spontaneity without 
which no great thing had fully achieved its being. 
Woman is the pure depositary of instinct ; and, as 
such, she is precious above all things in the eyes 
of the philosopher. 

" The more man develops his brain, the more 
he dreams of the opposite pole, of the Irrational, 
of a repose in complete ignorance — of the woman 
who is only a woman, of the instinctive being 
whose acts are guided by the impulse of an 
obscurer consciousness. . . . When our medita- 
tions have led us to the last term of doubt — then 
the spontaneous affirmation of the Good and the 
Beautiful in a woman's soul enchants us, and 



ECCLESIASTES IN A DEMOCRACY 241 



may yet give the casting vote. . . . Through her 
we are still in union with that eternal source of 
things, wherein God is reflected." 1 

It was this difference in woman which attracted 
Renan. Here was something at his hand whose 
movements he could not predicate, whose organs 
and whose instincts obeyed apparently different 
laws to those which regulated his own being. 
The curiosity of the philosopher was invincibly 
attracted.. We all know how, in the Indian 
drama, the men speak in Sanscrit, the heroines 
in Pracrit. Renan knew his Sanscrit grammar 
by heart ; it was stale to him. In his old age he 
longed to learn this Pracrit poetry of woman. 
" If born again," he said in one of his last 
prefaces, " I would be born a woman." 

Woman, divinised in Renan's later philosophy, 
repaid a hundredfold the adulation of the sage. 
Uncouth in frame and gait, as some gnome-like 
Breton saint, unworldly as the village cure he 
always looked like, Renan became the arbiter 
of the more intellectual elegancies of Paris. Fair 
ladies slept happy when they had exhibited him 
in their salons ; bonnets from Virot drooped a 
trifle disconcerted at the uncompromising scholar- 
ship of his lectures at the College of France ; 
latter-day Magdalenes consulted him as to the 

1 Preface an Souvenirs (PEnfance et de Jeunesse. 

Q 



242 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 

state of their conscience, and music-hall singers 
asked his opinion on their songs. We have 
spoken of Samuel Johnson. The great Doctor 
himself did not yield a more undisputed or a 
less-to-be-expected social sway over last-century 
London than Ernest Renan over the Paris of 
the Eighties. Victor Hugo, perhaps, was more 
of a popular enthusiasm, but Renan was both 
Society's and Caliban's special prophet. Perhaps 
the good opinion they entertained of him may 
have influenced our philosopher's estimate of 
Society, and of Caliban. For to both of these, 
in his latter days, he became extraordinarily 
indulgent. 

In 1879 Renan had been elected to the French 
Academy. The Academy accepted him with re- 
luctance ; but we may say that he reigned there, 
even as he reigned — a placid, benevolent, am- 
biguous divinity — over most of the learned 
societies of Paris. President of the Asiatic 
Society in 1882, he was, in the summer of 1884, 
appointed Administrator of the College of France 
— Principal, or Rector, as we should say at 
Oxford. He came into residence on his return 
from Rosmapamon. The local divinity was 
poorly housed in the old building of the Rue des 
Ecoles ; a meagre study looking north did not 
spare his rheumatism ; the narrow bedrooms were 



ECCLESIASTES IN A DEMOCRACY 243 



worthy of a convent, but there was a fair-sized 
salon to frame Scheffers pictures, and endless 
garrets for the innumerable books. It is doubtful 
if Renan was ever happier than in this inconvenient 
apartment. After his death his devoted wife, in 
setting his papers in order, found in a drawer 
a collection of old half-sheets, backs of envelopes, 
and such like, on which, from time to time, her 
husband had scrawled his reflections. On one 
of these she read : " I have known the grip of 
poverty, but never have I been so badly housed 
as at the College of France." Since then the 
residence has been twice enlarged to suit two 
successive Administrators, and at present it is 
all that health and commodity require. As 
much, and more, would have been done for 
Renan had it occurred to him to ask for repairs. 
But it is charmingly characteristic of the man 
that he never thought of it. In some moment 
of irritation he confided to a private Bocca di 
Leone, and perhaps to the ear of the Eternal, his 
just dissatisfaction . . . and then forgot it. I 
doubt if he would have suffered an improvement. 
It is certain that he would not have exchanged 
his beloved college for the palace of the Elysee. 

The least practical of men, Renan proved an 
admirable Administrator. Whatever he set his 
hand to do, he did it with all his might. One 



244 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



of his colleagues has set on record the unsuspected 
firmness that underlay his charming genius : — 

" Very indulgent to others, and convinced that 
few of the things for which men torment them- 
selves are really worth the trouble, there was one 
thing as to which he was ever inflexible ; for if 
we seek the continual motive of his life, in the 
sphere of action, we shall find it to have been 
the most abstract sense of duty. This man, who 
seemed to prize especially the grace of courtesy, 
among all the virtues of St Sulpice, who always 
seemed to seek for the phrase most pleasant to 
the ear of his interlocutor, be he whom he might, 
and who often carried the caress of his amiability 
to the verge of an apparent irony — this man, 
so indifferent and so pliant in appearance, became 
a bar of iron so soon as one sought to wrest from 
him an act or a word contrary to the intimate 
sense of his conscience." 1 

No man had a stronger sense of a professional 
engagement. Tortured with rheumatism, faint 
with the oppressed action of his heart, he never 
let his ill-health interfere with his lectures. I 
have seen him carried down the steep staircase 
of the College by hired porters — his bulk made 
it no easy thing to do — in order to attend an 

1 James Darmesteter, Ernest Return. See Critique et Politique , 
p. 64. 



ECCLESIASTES IN A DEMOCRACY 245 



election of the Academy. The least personal, 
the least glorious of his labours occupied him 
most. The last months of his life were given 
to the volume on the Rabbis of France in the 
fourteenth century, which he was compiling from 
the notes of Dr Neubauer, and which, I suppose, 
scarce one of my readers will have read, or even 
heard of. The most arid, the most ungrateful 
of tasks, Renan was delighted to subject himself 
to this labour, which he deemed useful, and which 
no one certainly would undertake if he left it 
undone. At the same moment all Paris, nay, 
all the elite of Europe, was smiling over the 
exquisite Feuilles Detachees. I have little doubt 
that in his heart of hearts, Renan preferred the 
Rabbis. 

Traversed by ill -health, disciplined by hard 
work, these years of apotheosis, these years of 
the eighties, were very happy years, full of family 
love, full of a just fame, to which Renan was 
never indifferent ; full of the flattery of popular 
applause. Surrounded by those he loved — his 
delightful wife (" She must have been specially 
made for me," he used to say) ; his gifted, 
sensitive son ; his exquisite daughter, in whom 
his dreams of Celtic grace had come to a perfect 
flower ; with his grandchildren about his knees, 
Paris at his feet, Renan spent happy winters 6 in 



246 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



his high-perched study of the College, and happy 
summers in his Breton manor. With Ecclesiastes, 
he exclaimed, more than once, that this, at least, 
is not vanity : to grow old with the wife of our 
youth, and to enjoy the modest fortune amassed 
by one's honest labours. That fortune was very 
modest, it is true ; but no shadow of money cares, 
no thought for the morrow, ever touched the 
serene self-detachment of this inveterate disciple 
of Mary. His children still smile when they re- 
call how, one afternoon, in their private, domestic 
Commission of the Budget, Madame Renan ex- 
posed the narrow extent of the family resources. 
" 'Tis true, 'tis true," said Renan, with sagacious 
impersonal calm, as he swayed himself from side 
to side. " Money shows no signs of rolling our 
way ! " But the fact appeared less important to 
him, it was evident, than the date of the last dis- 
covered Himyarite inscription. Care and trouble 
came not nigh him. 

It was at this moment that I made the ac- 
quaintance of M. and Madame Renan and their 
children. Well do I remember the day, the year, 
the season! It was in September 1880. I was 
travelling in Italy with my parents. At Venice 
we fell in with a friend of my father's — Signor 
Castellani, the archaeologist. He invited us to 
spend a day at Torcello with the Renans, Sir 



ECCLESIASTES IN A DEMOCRACY 247 



Henry Layard, and his wife. I was a young girl 
then, more familiar with the Nineveh Courts of 
the British Museum (for which I worshipped Sir 
Henry Layard) and with Signor Castellani's 
exquisite Bronze Mask in the same collection, 
than with any writing of M. Renan's. In fact, 
save for a lecture on Marcus Aurelius, which I 
had heard him deliver a few months before, I 
knew him only by repute, as a heretic (that was 
attractive), and a philologist (which seemed less 
interesting). But after the first half-hour in his 
company I saw that here, here was the Man of 
Genius ! I thought him like the enchanter 
Merlin — not Burne-Jones' graceful wizard, but 
some rough-hewn, gnome - like, Saint-Magician 
of Armor. What a leonine head, with its silvery 
mane of soft, grey hair, surmounted that massive 
girth ! What an elfin, delicate light shone in 
the clear eyes, and lurked in the sinuous lines 
of the smile ! How lucid, how natural, how 
benign the intelligence which mildly radiated 
from him ! M. Renan was at his best on that 
occasion. We all felt ourselves in the glad 
society of an Immortal. ... I still see the little 
Italian gunboat cutting through the bright lagoon 
towards the desolate shores of Torcello, fringed 
with scarlet-dotted pomegranate hedges and 
wastes of lilac-tipped sea-lavender ! How bril- 



248 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



liant the mother-island looked in her abandon- 
ment. The brown old church inspired M. Renan. 
At that moment, with a heart divided between 
the glory of Hellas and the spiritual grace of 
Christianity, few things, indeed, could have 
touched him nearer than that ancient Mosaic, 
where the Apocalyptic Angels pour the Wrath 
of God from vials shaped like the purest classic 
cornucopiae. He stood long in front of it. He 
discoursed to the eminent archaeologists who 
accompanied him ; we all listened, we girls no 
less earnestly than they, if with less understanding. 
At first I had thought him ugly, I confess. But, as 
he spoke, he grew almost handsome. The great 
head, held on one side, half in criticism, half in 
propitiation, was so puissant in its mass ; the 
blue eyes beamed with wit and playful kindness. 
How he savoured, and made us savour, that 
image of the anger of the Eternal elegantly 
treasured in the horns of plenty. How he re- 
vived for us the soul of the mother-church of 
Venice — the handful of poor refugees: primitive 
people, shipwrecked, as it were, upon that lonely 
island ; yet, in their way, refined thinkers, with a 
command of art and image, as became the heirs 
of more than one immeasurable ideal. 

Seven years later I went to see the Renans at 
the College of France, and thenceforward they 



ECCLESIASTES IN A DEMOCRACY 249 



both are blended with the happy memories of my 
married life. Madame Renan bestowed her kind 
protecting friendship on the foreign bride. Her 
husband, as Head of the College, as President of 
the Asiatic Society where M. Darmesteter was 
Secretary, was my husband's "chief" — and in 
more ways than these, for was he not first among 
the students of old faiths, and the leader of 
Oriental philologists in France? Though much 
firmness and an unalterable decision were masked 
by that benignant affability of his, he was the 
most genial of chiefs. I remember one after- 
noon, when we were in mourning and my husband 
ill, how he walked quickly into our little salon, 
embraced James on either cheek, tapped him on 
the shoulder, and pinned the Cross of the Legion 
of Honour in his coat. 

If we went to see him in his study at the 
College, how wise were his counsels, never volun- 
teered ! No man made less of a fetish of his 
work. Those golden phrases of his were often 
interrupted, for his time was at the disposal of 
those who needed it. When a visitor arrived, he 
would lay down his pen, give his mind to his 
guest until the door shut upon him, and then he 
would resume, without a pause, the unfinished 
sentence. So he threw off the first jet, generally 
copied by Madame Renan, recorrected, set up by 



250 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 

the printer, and polished slowly and lovingly on 
proof after proof of his interminable revise. 

He was somewhat disquieted by the drones 
and butterflies drawn to the College by the honey 
of his hive. One cannot imagine his serenity 
ruffled. But a summer lightning of irony would 
play in his eyes when too many tall English 
tourists, too many marvellous Parisian toilettes, oc- 
cupied the narrow benches of the little " Salle des 
Langues." I am told that on one such occasion, 
seeing his own students ousted, he bowed to the 
motley company as amiably as ever — " I am en- 
chanted," he began, " to observe the vogue for 
abstruse Hebrew studies which obtains to-day. 
In the presence of so choice an audience (another 
bow) there can be no need of an introduction to 
our subject. We will therefore read our text, 
phrase after phrase, in turn — in the original 
Hebrew " — a quick dispersion left the scholars to 
their book. 

M. Renan talked marvellously well, and he 
loved talking. He had little of the ready give- 
and-take which is the most usual form of wit, 
yet he had a colloquial magic of his own. His 
conversation was an attentive silence, interrupted 
by long pauses of solitary meditation, and by 
outbursts of radiant monologue. He liked dining 
out. Some of my most agreeable recollections 



ECCLESIASTES IN A DEMOCRACY 251 



are of the subtle and singular reflections with 
which, as with the wave of a fairy wand, our 
enchanter would turn a Paris dinner-party into 
an elect symposium. He could be grave — he 
could be gay. That night, for instance, when he 
told us — with what charm ! with what elegant 
lightness ! — the story of the Babylonian Tobias. 
Rash and young, this Chaldaean brother of our 
Tobit, discouraged by the difficult approaches of 
prosperity, had entered into partnership with 
a demi-god or Demon, who made all his schemes 
succeed and pocketed fifty per cent, upon the pro- 
fits. The remaining fifty sufficed to make Tobias 
as rich as Oriental fancy can imagine. The young 
man fell in love, married his bride and brought her 
home. . . . On the threshold stood the Demon : 
" How about my fifty per cent. ? " The Venus 
d'llle, you see, was not born yesterday. From 
the dimmest dawn of time, sages have taught 
us not to trust the gods too far ! 

Mvpidvovg avqp — M. Renan had far other moods. 
I remember a more serious banquet. It was at 
the house of the dear philosopher of the Rue 
Cassette. The Renans were there, some others, 
the Lyttons, I believe, and ourselves. That 
morning M. Taine had received a bundle of the 
papers of the Psychical Research Society. The 
psychologist — much interested at that time in 



252 LIFE OF ERNEST REN AN 



the problems of dual personality and so forth — 
let the conversation wander into the dubious 
sphere of the phantoms of the living. M. Renan 
appeared sunk in a dream of his own. From 
time to time he shook his mane, like a slumber- 
ing lion. Suddenly he looked up and spoke, 
with a flash in his blue eyes — fahg w Tig sXsyxnxog. 
Briefly indeed, and with a rare scorn in his irony, 
did the cross-examining God dispose of those 
vague approximations, those imprecise reminis- 
cences of another's experience, which suffice to 
found a fact in the annals of unscientific ob- 
servers. Truth, Science, were eloquently bid to 
the rescue, enjoined to engulph and swallow up 
the miracle -mongery, the wonder- worship, still 
so dear to the fashionable uneducated. And 
suddenly the prophet relented, cast up his hands 
in kindly deprecation — " O les gens du monde ! 
la science des gens du monde ! " In spite of 
all, he knew he had a weakness for these well- 
bred culprits. 

Such outbursts were rare. The affable Arch- 
angel concealed them, as it were, under a cas- 
sock of non-committal ecclesiastical courtesy. He 
generally acquiesced. I used to wonder what 
assertion would be too wild to provoke his 
amiable " Mais certainement, Madame ! " He 
would let any young lady explain to him the 



ECCLESIASTES IN A DEMOCRACY 253 



nicest points in Semitic archaeology without a 
protest. Sometimes I tried, I admit, how far 
one could go. Perhaps there was a twinkle 
in the kindly indifferent eye. Never anything 
so pedantic as a contradiction. 

M. Renan and I were born on the same 
day — at an interval of some five - and - thirty 
years — or rather we thought we were so born. 
For it is characteristic of the idealist that all 
his life he thought himself a day older than he 
was. On the 27th of February, notes and flowers 
went gaily between us. For M. Renan was gay : 
M. Lemaitre has reproached him with the fact, and 
it is true. Despite old age, and constant pain, 
lack of breath, and sometimes lack of means — 
despite the prospect of the end at hand, M. Renan 
was gay, unfailingly patient, cheerful, and serene. 
One 27th of February there were no more good 
wishes, and yet, as we talked with Madame 
Renan, the kind sage seemed almost one among 
us. " A widow," said Michelet, " should be her 
husband's soul delayed among us." Such was 
she. The thoughts, the wishes, the counsels, 
the memories of M. Renan lingered with us 
eighteen months after we had bidden him fare- 
well. The past abided with her. She would 
spend hours contentedly reviving the episodes of 
their journey in Asia Minor, living over again 



254 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



the first years of her marriage. Happy years 
full of youth and love and poverty, when, 
at the end of his long day's work, she used 
to carry off her young husband on some in- 
expensive adventure. " We used to call on 
the cats of the Quarter ! M. Renan had names 
for them all. You may put that in your book ! " 
she would say with a smile. This book was a 
favourite project of her's. We made plans for 
writing it together ; and, indeed, I could never 
have written it without her. But she missed too 
sorely, she mourned too faithfully, the hero of our 
biography, and, before a line of it was set down, I 
learned one day, at her door, that she would 
never read it. 

But remembrance carries me too fast. Those 
days have not yet dawned. A brief spell of life 
and noble labour remains to Ernest Renan. 



CHAPTER V 



THE HISTORY OF ISRAEL 

IN that writing-table drawer to which our 
philosopher confided so many private ejacu- 
lations, Madame Renan found a slip of paper on 
which was written : " Of all that I have done, 
I prefer the Corpus? Of average, well-read 
persons, taking an interest in European literature, 
I suppose some fifty per cent, may have read 
the Souvenirs of Ernest Renan, and perhaps 
twenty per cent, the Life of Jesus, and ten, 
at most, let us say, some other work of the 
master's — usually the Feuilles Detachees, or 
the recently published Letters, but occasionally 
St Paul, or the Apostles, or perhaps one 
of the two lovely volumes of Religious Studies, 
Qr the Essays on Moral Science and Criticism. 
But for every hundred cultured readers, scarce 
the fraction of a unit can be placed to the 
account of the Corpus. The Corpus Semiticarum 
Inscriptionum is not in any sense a book. It 

is a tool for scholars. It is a collection of all 

255 



256 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



the Semitic inscriptions as yet discovered on 
Jewish, Aramean, Phoenician, Himyarite, Cartha- 
ginian, Cypriote, Greek, Egyptian, Sicilian, Mal- 
tese, Sardinian, Arabian, Assyrian, and Chaldsean 
monuments. The comparison of these inscrip- 
tions—the unsuspected details, the singular 
rapprochements which result from such a compari- 
son — is, perhaps, the most important factor in the 
exegesis and the historical discoveries of the 
future. In the study of the Past no detail is 
insignificant ; the most patient analysis of the 
greatest possible quantity of authentic material 
is the first condition of historic insight. A poet, 
a prophet may touch the dry bones and make 
them live. But without these dry bones, appar- 
ently so mouldered and remote, even an Ezekiel 
were of no avail. Renan never forgot this 
essential truth. His soaring genius was con- 
stantly refreshed from the humble springs of 
fact and certainty. 

It was in 1867 that M. Renan proposed to the 
Academy of Science and Belle Lettres the forma- 
tion of a Corpus for Semitic inscriptions on the 
model of Bcekh's Greek Corpus ; but it was only 
in 18 81 that the first number was given to the 
world. Semitic epigraphy is a recent science, 
and every year adds to its scanty store, and 
patiently reanimates the past of Israel, and of the 



THE HISTORY OF ISRAEL 257 



neighbours of Israel, too long transfigured by an 
exclusively sacred tradition into something out of 
the likeness of human days and works. The 
materials are slowly accumulating for a definite 
history of the Semitic kingdoms. M. Renan, 
nourished on the Bible, familiar with the sites and 
races of the Holy Land, was almost the first to 
perceive the extent of the fresh resources offered 
by recent epigraphy. 

Renan commenced his " History of the People 
of Israel " at sixty years of age— the first volume 
appeared in 18 8 7 — having spent his whole life 
in studying the materials which critics, scholars, 
archaeologists, and explorers have gathered con- 
cerning the Semitic peoples. Forty years before 
he had planned his great work on the " Origins 
of Christianity." " I ought to have begun with 
the Prophets," he said later ; but the figure of 
Jesus attracted him with an incessant magnetism, 
and besides, a delicate lad of twenty, he had 
not dared to count upon so long a future. Now 
he determined to fill up the weak places in his 
foundations, and to found Christianity, as in 
truth it is founded, on the teachings of Amos, 
of Isaiah, of Ezekiel, and especially of the great 
nameless prophet, who wrote the latter chapters 
of the book we call Isaiah's. 

The originality of Renan's "History of Israel " 
R 



258 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



lies in this fact, that he places the Prophets at 
the very core and centre of Jewish thought — 
the Prophets, not Moses or Elias. The first 
volume of his history is perhaps disappointing ; 
it is less a history than a vague poetic rhapsody 
— such as we expect from a Michelet rather 
than a Renan — a piece of cosmic folk-lore, 
too merely grandiose and picturesque. Yet 
it contains a page on the civilisation of Babylonia 
which no reader can forget ; and the idyll of 
Father Orcham, the ideal king of the Chaldsean 
golden age, whom the pastors of Israel adopted 
for their ancestor, has the true ring of a primitive 
fable. But surely M. Renan exaggerates the 
monotheism of these tribal wanderers ? He 
is never so happy as when divining in its ultimate 
recesses, calling up from its deepest hiding-places, 
the different forms of religious feeling. And 
yet we think he antedates the religious tendency 
of these primitive tribesmen. Surely in their 
attitude towards the Unknown there was little 
but dread and mere propitiation. 

Something of the same fatigue, the same in- 
adequacy, is shown in the history of David and 
Solomon, however picturesque, however full of 
recondite and charming detail. Yet David, the 
brigand chief, ruling Israel by means of his Cretan 
mercenaries ; Solomon, the intelligent, unpreju- 



THE HISTORY OF ISRAEL 259 



diced, wise man of the East, much like many a 
Jew of our days — shrewd, epicurean, materialist, 
blind to the true vocation of his race : these are 
figures which impress us by their reality despite 
the defects of the volume which contains them. 
Of these defects the greatest is an excessive use 
of Renan's peculiar irony. The immensity of his 
mental horizon is such as to include, and as it 
were to associate, objects which appear to belong 
to different spheres of thought. What can be 
more disconcerting than his serene and candid 
fashion of assuring us how much the Book 
of Jonah resembles La Belle Helene ? — that 
Jeremiah was a journalist of the type of Felix 
Pyat, and Ezekiel a sort of Victor Hugo at 
Hauteville House, unless, indeed, we consider him 
more like Fourier ? These unexpected compari- 
sons startle and shock the attention of readers less 
familiar with the antipodes of history ; and, while 
acquitting our placid sage of any childish desire 
to merely dazzle or astonish. I own that I con- 
sider these " actualities " misplaced. They may 
occasionally illuminate, as by a searchlight, some 
obscure and dusty purlieu of the Past. But more 
often they merely serve to irritate the student ; 
and, after a short lapse of years, they will seem 
even more incomprehensible : two Pasts, neither 
familiar, will then confuse each other. This con- 



26o LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



tinual blemish mars the third volume of the 
History of Israel no less, and perhaps even more, 
than the two earlier ones. But, at this point, it 
is caught up and, as it were, whirled out of sight 
in the noble and living current of the work. For 
M. Renan touches his true subject at last in deal- 
ing with the Prophets of Israel. The notion of 
justice, of righteousness unto God and Man, the 
divine necessity of self-amelioration, was born into 
the world with Amos and Hosea, and their religion 
is big with our future. 

Renan's History of Israel is, in fact, a history of 
the religious Idea ; a chronicle of the divine thirst 
after justice done, not to ourselves, but to all men, 
for the greater glory of God. The prehistoric 
cosmogony of Israel is, in this sense, not religious 
at all : neither the Elohim, the multiple sprites of 
the air, nor Yahveh, the storm-god of Sinai, have 
any clear idea of right and wrong. They have 
not plucked as yet the fruit of the Tree of Know- 
ledge. Their will is capricious, inexplicable, 
absurd ; the Elohim wrestle all night with the 
sons of earth, and are wounded by a man at 
cock-crow ; they enter into a chiefs garden, and 
sit at meat with him. Yahveh is of a revolting 
partiality ; he protects his favourites, he takes 
care of his own, however little exemplary their 
conduct, so that it is wise indeed to be the servant 



THE HISTORY OF ISRAEL 261 



of Yahveh. The world which these deities govern 
is quite small; a ladder connects it with the 
heaven which they inhabit. One may say that 
up to the death of Solomon true religion was un- 
known. The deity was still the tribal god : his 
prophet was still a sorcerer, a medicine-man, a 
sort of mythic wonder-worker. But let us not 
despair of that divine instinct in humanity which 
knows how to turn dross into gold, how to evolve, 
from the primitive terror of soothsay, the idea of 
justice, the search for truth, the thirst after 
righteousness. " Behold the days come (saith 
the Lord) that I will send a famine in the land, 
not a famine of bread nor a thirst after water, 
but of hearing the words of the Lord " (Amos, 
viii. 1 1 ). And behold, the Word of the Lord has 
grown in its significance. Yahveh no longer says 
"worship me and prosper" ; he says "eschew evil 
and do good." He commands no more " take 
thy brother's birthright," but " love thy neighbour 
as thyself." 

It is this moral evolution which is the secret of 
the undying importance of the History of Israel. 
Full of ruse and guile, destitute of the sense of 
Beauty which ennobled Greece, or of the political 
and military grandeur which made the force of 
Rome, this small Syrian tribe is no less immortal 
than Greece or Rome, for it first interpreted the 



262 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



secret oracle within the heart of humanity. All 
the great fibres of spiritual being vibrate in the 
soul of Israel. Wonder of wonders, the instinct 
of religion reveals to the prophet even how 
the day shall dawn when religion shall be 
other than he may conceive it — freer, ampler, 
tied to no ritual, bound upon the horns of no 
altar. 

" And it shall come to pass (saith the Lord) 
that ye shall say no more : ■ The Ark of the 
Covenant of the Lord ' : neither shall it come to 
mind : neither shall ye remember it ; neither 
shall ye visit it ; neither shall these things be 
done any more — neither shall ye walk any 
more after the imagination of an evil heart " 
(Jeremiah iii. 16). 

Every great gift is developed and nourished 
at the expense of the exhausted organism which 
produces it. The soul, that perfect flower of 
Israel, ruined the material prosperity of Israel. 
The doctrines of the Prophets are not compatible 
with any strong military or civic organisation. 
Preoccupied with individual justice, — individual 
well-doing and well-being — Amos and Jeremiah 
conceived as iniquity the nation which deliber- 
ately devotes thousands of its offspring to the 
brutal and stupid life of tent and camp. The 
Assyrian hoplite appeared to them even lower 



THE HISTORY OF ISRAEL 263 



in' the scale than the captive of the Assyrians 
— for him, at least, there should be no return 
from exile, no promised restoration. And in 
a primitive civilisation, the country which means 
to conquer, which means to dominate, can 
only do so at the cost of the enforced service 
of the mass : a colossal unconsented slavery in 
the interests of a fatherland which absorbs and 
does not reward the factors of its grandeur. 
There is its fine side, too, in the military glory 
of an Assyria or an Egypt. But Israel only sees 
the innocent blood, the endless tears of the just 
man offended, with which the stones of their 
pyramids are welded together. And she will 
none of the magnificence of Assur. 

More than once, in writing the History of 
Israel, Renan's thoughts reverted to his own 
times. In Amos and Hosea, in Jeremiah and 
Isaiah, he saw the forerunners of the socialists 
of our age. In Nineveh and Babylon he saw 
the ancestors of feudal Germany. Which is 
the wiser ? Almost invariably, the nation which 
labours for Humanity and the Future works its 
own destruction in the process. The Kingdom of 
God is not of this w r orld. In the administration 
of a great power, in the maintenance of a national 
army, there are abuses which are almost neces- 
sary. A society which is always just is disarmed 



264 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



before the strength of the unscrupulous. A people 
whose teachers are concerned only with the eternal 
verities will be far behind Babylon, not simply in 
practical affairs, but also in natural science. It 
was Babylon, after all, which first attempted to 
explain the Universe ; Israel borrowed the ten 
opening chapters of Genesis from the savants 
of Chaldaea. An exclusive preoccupation with 
piety and morals is apt to produce a very 
mediocre standard of culture. The ideal of 
Israel is the ideal of a saint, a prophet, a monk, 
a Savonarola. But which did the most for 
Florence, Savonarola or the Medici ? 

The happiness and the sanctity of the in- 
dividual, or the splendour and force of the 
organism of which he is an atom : whether 
of these is desirable? More than once Renan 
has asked himself the question, to which there 
are only too many answers. Whichever response 
we accept may be an error, for, when all is said, 
which of us can be sure of what is in fact the 
real object of Humanity? 

" He, at least, is not wholly mistaken who fears 
lest he be in the wrong and treats no one as 
blind ; who, ignoring the goal of Man, loves him 
as he strives, he and his work ; who seeks the 
Truth in doubting of heart, and who says to his 
opponent : ' Perchance seest thou clearer than 1/ 



THE HISTORY OF ISRAEL 265 



He, in fine, who accords his fellows the wide 
liberty he takes for himself ; — he surely may 
sleep in peace and await the judgment of all 
things, if such a judgment there shall be." 1 

1 Hist, du peupled? Israel^ III., p. 279. 



CHAPTER VI 



LAST DAYS 

" T N the Name of Life, the vast, the mysterious, 
the excellent ! " So begins the Bible of 
the Mendai'tes, and under this invocation would I 
place the last philosophy of Ernest Renan. The 
final reaction of his mind was, after all, optimistic. 
Man is full of errors, but error is essentially 
transitory, and the eternal result of his passage 
through the universe is Truth. God is absent 
from the scheme of things in the sense of Action ; 
in all the ages of human history no trustworthy 
evidence attests a divine intervention to protect 
the innocent or to relieve the sufferer. But the 
law and condition of so much of the Universe as 
we may understand is ever a perpetual Fieri y a 
divine Becoming, an eternal development towards 
an unknown end, which may become at last a 
manifestation of the Hidden Divinity. Nor, be- 
cause His ways are not as our ways, His thoughts 
as our thoughts, let us too hastily conclude the 
eternal absence of that Heavenly Father which 

the heart of man claims, and to which he calls 

266 



LAST DAYS 



267 



incessantly without response. Out of our tears 
and our prayers He may yet be born. More- 
over, rightly considered, is not that call of ours 
its own answer ? Disinterested prayer is not 
a petition but an act of praise, an act of 
Hope, an inner communing with the principle 
of things, an affirmation of the spiritual Reality 
which governs appearances. " And our day- 
dreams themselves are another fashion of ador- 
ing — a poor inferior prayer, full of long re- 
mainders of the ardour of our youth, warm as 
covered embers are, instinct with the secret 
assurance that the Absolute Night itself is, per- 
chance, not devoid of this same lingering warmth 
and life ! " 1 The unselfish man — the only one 
who counts — prays in secret a hundred times a 
day. For an acquiescence in the laws of that 
Universe, in which alone we may see God, — "as 
in a glass, darkly," — is not this also Prayer and 
an act of Faith ? 

We must fain believe in Something inde- 
pendent of the Finite and the Knowable, when 
in our own hearts, in our own lives, in the 
lives of all around us we observe the persistence 
and the universality of certain great guiding 
principles which are folly, according to the wis- 
dom of this world : self-sacrifice, love, disin- 

1 Preface to the Nouvelles Etudes Religieuses % 



268 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



terestedness, the instinct of Duty. These are 
the voice of the Universe, " a language which 
hails from the Infinite, perfectly clear in its com- 
mands, obscure in its promises " 1 — a language, 
which in some fashion and degree, we all obey. 
No man is absolutely and consistently a monster ; 
in every life there is some effort towards Love, 
Truth, or Beauty ; the worst man drops one of 
these priceless gold coins into the world's coffer 
against the millions of mere brass counters which 
he squanders out of window. And in the 
scheme of things, Good is a coin of great 
price, Evil is poor trash of no value. Thus 
there is scarce any existence which, rightly 
summed up, does not show an imperceptible 
balance to the good. 

Like Francis of Assisi, whom he understood 
so well (" St Francis will save him ! " once cried 
a Capuchin friar), Renan had arrived at the 
supreme indulgence — he no longer believed in 
the existence of sin. Evil appeared to him a 
void, a vacuum, a gap to be filled up in the 
gradual process of Creation ; but not a substance 
to be vanquished and destroyed. Of him also 
might it be said : " He would not admit the 
reality of evil. It is not that he was indifferent, 
but, in probing the heart of man, he found no irre- 

1 Fetalis Detachhs : Examen de Conscience Philosophique. 



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269 



missible guilt in it: the one sin is baseness; weak- 
ness, error, seemed to him scarcely sin/' 1 He 
would have said with Plato, that when the Soul 
is alienate from Truth, it is always momentarily 
so constrained against its will : the natural growth 
of our spirits being towards the light. An in- 
voluntary opinion can not be a crime. Let us 
believe that the sin of our neighbour is no affair 
of ours, and probably infinitely less important 
than we deem it. In time, the Truth will 
certainly prevail, and convince even them that 
sit in outer darkness. 

The two fundamental doctrines of religion 
remain undemonstrable : no man can prove the 
existence of a personal God, nor the im- 
mortality of the Soul. The task of the modern 
thinker is the task of Kant — the task of the 
Prophets of Israel. They justified the ways of 
God to man with little more than the minimum 
of faith ; from the rebellious stuff of humanity 
they extracted righteousness and resignation, and 
patient depths of long self-sacrifice, with no sure 
promise of a future life. They loved God for 
God, and the right for the sake of righteousness. 
Happy those who can so inspire their fellows 
without alleging anything unproven, anything 
with which their conscience may reproach them 

1 Nouvelles Etudes Religieuses: St Francois d'Assise, p. 333. 



270 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



as a lure. Piety may exist independent of all 
dogma, and may prove the inner strength and 
consolation of the Soul. We may still " seek 
God," like the wise men of Israel, and find much 
sweetness in that seeking. We may weep to 
Him alone in our trouble, nor our tears be shed 
in vain. For in the end, in the infinite end of 
ages, Humanity creates the thing which it desires. 
And at last, at last, all the dreams of Man come 
true. 

Thus "the most logical attitude of the thinker 
towards Religion is : to behave as though Religion 
were true. We must act as though God and 
the Soul were proven. Religion is one of the 
numerous hypotheses, such as the waves of ether, 
or the electric, luminous, caloric and nervous fluids, 
nay, the atom itself, which we know to be mere 
symbols and manners of speech, convenient for 
the explaining of certain phenomena, but which, 
none the less, we maintain." 1 The more we 
reflect, the more we see the impossibility of 
proving, but also the moral necessity of be- 
lieving in, these great premisses : God and 
the Soul. Let us keep the category of the 
Unknowable ! Parallels meet at the Infinite : 
Science and Religion doubtless meet there. And 
1 Examen de Conscience.— Feuilles DZtacJUes, p. 432. 



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271 



if not ? — Why, then, Renan would have said with 
Goethe : 

" Wen Gott betriigt ist wohl betrogen." 

The most intelligent course of Man, as well 
as the most virtuous, is to act in the general 
sense of Universal Law. Domine, si error est, a 
te decepti sunt I 

In philosophy the consolatory hypothesis is, 
after all, as good an hypothesis as any other. It 
is the only one which could abidingly content a 
man like Renan, who, — dilettante and scholar as 
he remained, no doubt, — was none the less, by 
the inner constitution of his being, a profoundly 
religious man. The needs of his nature were 
triple : his heart desired Beauty and his mind 
Truth ; but the earnest problem of Man's virtue 
in Nature's ruthlessness was the fundamental pre- 
occupation of his soul. 

" I often reproach myself (he said, in almost 
the last pages that fell from his hand) because 
at my age, I am sometimes occupied with other 
things than these Eternal Verities. My excuse 
is that my chief duty here below is accomplished. 
. . . That last arch of the bridge which I had 
still to throw between Christianity and Judaism, 
is now established. ... I have still much to do 
in the way of proof-correcting ; but, if I died 



272 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



to-morrow, with the aid of a good corrector, 
my History of Israel could -appear in its com- 
pleteness." 1 

The third and finest volume of this last and 
great work appeared in 1891. Renan did not 
live to see the publication of the two concluding 
tomes, which he left almost finished, lacking, in- 
deed, those fine last touches, those delicate elabor- 
ations and reservations, which he was wont to 
add — patiently, interminably — on page after page 
of his proofs. The pearl has less gloss, and a 
dimmer orient, it may be ; but its orb is perfect, 
and its structure sound. The chapters on Philo 
and the Essenians, which adorn the fifth volume, 
are among the most vivid and the purest which 
we owe to Renan's singular genius. Age could 
not stale nor custom wither that infinite variety. 
The extraordinary freshness, the divine youth of 
his spirit remained almost unimpaired by suffering, 
to his last hour. It is a freshness as of thyme and 
dew on a spring morning ; something natural, 
and sweet, and pure ; and it was never more 
conspicuous, as mere style, than in those Feuilles 
Detaches, which he collected and published in the 
very year of his death. 

For long enough his health had been failing. 
He took all the little miseries of age and a broken 

1 Preface to Feuilles Detachers. 



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273 



constitution in that spirit of mingled irony and 
sweetness which never left him. Before mere 
physical suffering, he was ever serene as an 
image of Buddha. Enforced idleness was a 
sorer burden, and sometimes he would half com- 
plain that in his childhood he had never learned 
to play. His little grandchildren began his 
instruction in that wise art. But the sage was 
too tired to prove an apt pupil. He liked best to 
look on and listen, thinking of many things, and 
enjoying that last pleasure of watching life's 
morning windows brighten when the sun forsakes 
us in the west. 

Few people suffer more than he in his last 
illness. Protracted neuralgia tortured him month 
by month. He admitted the fact, but never 
murmured, and would certainly not have owned 
himself unhappy. For he loved Life, and saw that 
it was good. Self-pity was a weakness which he 
knew not. Nor did his own pain ever blind him 
to the immense sum of virtue, love, beauty, 
knowledge, and innocent happiness, which, all 
round him, at that instant, the universe was 
yielding undiminished. That tiny but eternal 
residue of good, that drop of immortal aroma, 
which the scheme of things secretes from day 
to day, appeared to impregnate every moment 
of his life, and to embalm even the pangs of his 

s 



274 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



agony. I think there was no day, even of that 
cruel last year, from which he would not have 
offered from a sincere heart, his Te Deum Laud- 
amus. If there were hours in it racked with 
intercostal neuralgia, stupefied with oppressive 
weakness, there were also moments — divine 
moments whose superior value outweighed those 
hours — in which he was able to complete the 
great task of his life ; or which he gave to the 
management of that beloved College whose good 
genius he was ; or he spent them in discussing 
with a few chosen spirits — M. Berthelot, M. Taine, 
M. Gaston Paris, and some others ever welcome — 
the questions which occupied his unfailing mind in 
sickness as in health ; or, simply, he let himself 
rest in the tender love of his dear wife and 
children. 

He knew that he was dying. The physicians 
continued to speak of gout, of rheumatism, of 
neuralgia — but it is, I think, impossible to have 
a mortal disease and not to know it : for years he 
had told his wife that his heart was affected. 
But he was dying at the end of his chosen task, 
having completed the immense circle which he 
had dared to trace. He had married his daughter, 
and had embraced her children. The sensitive 
artistic spirit of his son, the painter, showed itself 
calmed and fortified by the first draught of success. 



LAST DAYS 



275 



His wife, the trusted confidante and secretary 
of more than thirty years, would execute his 
last wishes, and would see his History through 
the press. One of his favourite pupils would 
succeed him in his chair at the College of 
France, and in the direction of the Corpus. He 
could repeat with the ancient Simeon : Nunc 
dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum 
tuum y in pace. . . . 

The future, in fine, was a spectacle which he 
could regard with a great satisfaction. He had 
given his life to Truth, and he had certainly 
furthered her progress. He had chosen the better 
part, and it had not been taken away from him. 
The things in which he had put the truest part of 
his life would survive him, and would be fruitful 
in his absence. Untimely death may be terrible, 
for it may mean a waste of immense possibilities. 
But death when our task is achieved? Why 
rebel against the law of nature ? Did we ever 
believe ourselves exempt from mortality ? 

At the New Year of 1892 the Renans went to 
Cap Martin for a few weeks of sun and sea. The 
blue Mediterranean shore enveloped the dying 
sage with its enchantment. He felt better, well, 
saw the future brighten and lengthen before him. 
But the south in winter is a cup of which a 
sick man should drink deep, or not at all. 



276 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



Despite his wasted health, Renan could not 
make up his mind to desert the College even 
for a season. Before the month was out he 
returned to resume his course of Hebrew. On 
the return journey, at Dijon, he took a chill. 
And after that, again, he was less well all winter. 

Those who knew him as well as I did will 
never forget his quiet heroism, his unassuming 
devotion, all through the first semestre of 1892. 
With my eyes shut, I can still see the heavy 
quaint figure painfully descending the steep 
stairs of the College, and serenely accosting, with 
oppressed breath, but without complaint, the col- 
leagues he directed, with a smile. He delivered 
his lectures with exactitude. He presided over 
the Asiatic Society. He completed his studies on 
the Mediaeval Rabbis for the Academy of Inscrip- 
tions ; — and this was a great joy. On Friday 
evenings, in his wife's salon, his friends found 
him willing to converse with them on any sub- 
ject. His unimpaired curiosity continued to 
interrogate the universe. He was dying, but he 
had not abdicated. 

At midsummer he moved with his family to 
the Breton coast. And for a while things went 
well with him. He loved his calm manor of 
Rosmapamon, the fresh quiet country, with its 
green fields and spinnies, its commons golden 



LAST DAYS 



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with gorse, its great granite rocks, its sombre and 
splendid sea. It was there, perhaps, that he 
spent his happiest days. " My ideal " — (he says 
in the Eau de Jouvence, speaking as usual through 
the lips of Prospero). — " My ideal would be an 
old patriarchal country house, full of children 
singing, full of lads and lasses light of heart, 
where everyone would eat, drink, and be merry 
at my expense." Rosmapamon supplied his kind 
old age with that hospitable holiday. There 
were long quiet mornings for work : evenings 
in which the tired enchanter saw, as he wished, 
the young people unchecked by his presence in 
their merry-making. In the afternoons, in the 
long, lazy, summer afternoons, almost every day 
he went a little walk, leaning on his wife's arm. 
He would sit on a bank by the side of a field, and 
look placidly over the Celtic landscape which he 
had loved in childhood — of which he felt himself 
an animate part. But there was one thing he 
loved more than Nature, and that was knowledge ; 
the service of Truth. When, at the end of Sep- 
tember, he had an attack of the heart, he said to 
Madame Renan : " Take me back to the College." 
And there on the 12th of October 1892, he died 
at his post. 

He died happy. His mind kept to the end its 



278 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



serene lucidity, his temper its kind sweetness 
unalloyed by personal repining. All he asked 
was that his illness should put nothing out of its 
due order, that his death should cost no excessive 
grief — the only thing in which his wife ever 
disobeyed him. " I have done my work," he said 
to Madame Renan, " I die happy." And again 
he said, " It is the most natural thing in the 
world to die : let us accept the Laws of the 
Universe " — and he added : " the heavens and 
the earth remain." 

So he passed away, and his death struck 
France with a sort of stupor. He was the 
greatest man of genius our generation had 
known : in style, sentiment, poetry of feeling no 
less a Master than Victor Hugo ; in history and 
philosophy the compeer of Taine ; in philology 
the heir of Burnouf. There was scarce one 
branch of thought in France but it was im- 
poverished by his disappearance. 

He was buried with great honours. The grey 
old College was decked as for a national festivity. 
The best and wisest men in France bade a public 
farewell to his sacred ashes. There had been a 
question of laying him to rest under the dome of 
the Pantheon. At the last moment the Govern- 
ment feared the protest of the Right at the 



LAST DAYS 



279 



opening of the Chambers. And the great Idealist 
had not where to lay his head. . . . His wife buried 
him with her people in the vault of the Sheffers 
at Mont-Martre. But where he should have 
lain, where he would have wished to lie, is in 
the small, green space which the cloister of 
Tr^guier encloses. "It is there I would sleep/' 
he said once, " under a stone engraved with these 
words — 

Veritatem Dilexi? 

Who knows ? the day may dawn when the 
Church of his youth may yet accept the guardian- 
ship of the grave of Ernest Renan. 

" All religions are vain (he said), but religion is 
not vain." ..." Let us not abjure our Heavenly 
Father. Let us not deny the possibility of a final 
justice. Perchance we have never known one of 
those tragic situations where God is the sole 
Confidant, the necessary Consoler. . . . Where 
else shall we seek the true witness, if not on high ? 
How often have we felt the need of an appeal to 
Absolute Truth ; how often we would cry to it : 
' Speak ! Speak ! ' Who knows ? At that in- 
stant we were, perhaps, on the threshold of 
Truth. But the strange thing is that nothing 



28o LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



shows if our protestations have found a hearing. 
When Nimrod shot his arrows into Heaven, they 
came back to him tipped with blood. We have 
never received any response at all. O God, 
whom we adore in spite of all, Thou art in truth 
a Hidden God ! " 1 

These were almost the last written words of 
Ernest Renan. They are characteristic. They 
might be taken from his earliest pages. Instinct 
and Reason speak to us in different voices, equally 
imperious, equally insistent ; only we are most of 
us a little deaf with one ear ! But Renan lost no 
word of either of these eternal monitors. There 
is his secret, there his charm, there the peculiar 
value of his genius. But therein also the some- 
thing unconvinced — or only momentarily convinced 
— which leaves his purest harmonies for ever un- 
resolved. We know that, in one other moment, 
he will hear the other Voice, he will deliver a 
different message : le coeur a ses raisons que la 
raison ne connait pas. One lobe of his brain is 
continually engaged in supplementing the thoughts 
produced by the other : we can imagine them as 
two mirrors so placed as to show the opposing 
faces of the object they reflect. Fortunately this 
variety is saved from chaos by certain dominating 

1 Preface to Feuilles DdtacMes* 



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281 



principles which remain unaltered in the midst of 
mutability. 

Religion may or may not be true ; it is not 
vain ; even though it answer to no supernatural 
reality. Our conscience is a moral fact as im- 
portant as our reason, and the man who says 
" I ought " as superior to the savage as the man 
who says " I reflect." 

The Good exists ; and indeed we may say that 
it alone exists. Evil is transitory. In its different 
forms of Truth, Virtue, Knowledge, Beauty, the 
Good endures and accumulates, and, by the im- 
pulse of its own force, must develop more and 
more. " The world's our oyster " : slowly, surely, 
it secretes the inevitable pearl which may survive 
it. Meanwhile Evil is with us certainly. We 
suffer, we are oppressed by material circumstances, 
we may even die before our time in anguish and 
never bring forth the fruit which we were destined 
to produce. Yet the construction of the universe 
allows for infinite waste. Other germs will bear ; 
all will not be blasted. Evil is a sort of moral 
carbonic acid gas, mortal when isolated and a real 
danger to our existence ; and yet, when combined 
with other forces, not only innocuous, but even 
necessary to our vital powers, in the present 
state of their development. The important 
thing in life is not our misery, our despair, 

T 



282 LIFE OF ERNEST RENAN 



however crushing, but the one good moment 
which outweighs it all. Man is born to suffer, 
but he is born to hope. And the message of 
the universe still runs, as of old : a/Xhov, a/Xhov, 
elm, rh d y *v vixdrw. 



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